In Alberta parents, teachers and students are surveyed annually to determining their thoughts on various aspects of the school, division and overall educational system. These survey results are made available in the spring for the schools to analyze and determine action that needs to be taken.
In our school, only grade 4 parents are surveyed and the number who respond can vary, but generally not many respond. It would be easy to say that because of the low numbers of respondents, that the information is not valid. All it takes, in a small group is for a couple of people with an axe to grind, to skew the results in a negative direction.
This year, we had generally good results. There was one area that came out quite a bit lower than last year. On the report is shows up as ‘declined significantly’. There were other areas that the numbers went down somewhat as well. So, do we blame this on a few disgruntled people?
It would be very easy to do so. However, the data is still data – skewed or not. We haven’t been doing a good job of communicating some things to parents, or in responding to the concerns they have. Even if it is a few people, it needs to be on our radar. We are accountable to all the parents; so that means we have things to think about.
We value communication and involving parents, so we need to think about new and/or better ways to do that.
Almost all of the division principals, some vice principals, and many of our senior admin attended the 2015 ULead conference in Banff. The location of the conference was fantastic, but the learning was the most important take away. The conference was fortunate to have world class speakers like Andy Hargreaves, Simon Breakspear and Pasi Sahlberg. An awesome surprise for attendees was Pak Tee Ng, from Singapore whom many had not heard of prior to this conference. He blended humour with a passion for student learning that was inspirational.
As principals, we’ve been asked to reflect on our learnings at the conference, and what better way to reflect than in one’s blog?
Personally I found one of the most powerful messages of the conference to be that of the influence of the empowered and passionate teacher in conjunction with leaders who are engaged in, and unwaveringly concerned with student learning. Through the presentations from the keynote speakers and the smaller group sessions, I found myself to be reflecting on this point many times. The thinking process for me was gelled together Tuesday afternoon at the last session of the day.
I was at a session presented by Carmen Mombourquette from the University of Lethbridge who was presenting findings on the Leadership Competencies of Principals and qualities of some of the best school leaders in Alberta. The 7 Competencies we have in Alberta are laid out in other iterations around the world, so while the concept is not unique to Alberta we can gain knowledge from engaging in the research done in this area.
Our division has done a great job of empowering the schools in Professional Development and autonomy in how we set up and coordinate our PLCs. I have been personally interested in this area for the last 5 or 6 years, and have found that things have coalesced to make this an area that is demonstrating a lot of positive results as a result of mindful effort.
In the session I attended many of the practices of these high performing school leaders pointed to the work they do in empowering their teachers and setting up their schools to be places of learning. They were able to shift the culture in ways that made the power of teachers working together on improving student learning a key focus in the work done. All of the competencies need to be focused in the direction of student learning and ways to keep it at the forefront.
We have done a lot of work to align the goals in our Professional Growth Plans with the work done in our Professional Learning Communities and the types of PD we participate in. This alignment, coupled with assurances around best practice for PLCs has begun to show very positive results in PLCs and the teacher efforts in improving student learning.
As this has been a focus throughout the year, I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on how what I was hearing throughout the conference was reflected in what we were doing at our school. Much of what I heard directly correlated with the work done at Landing Trail. But I know there is still work to do in this area. One of the key ideas I took from the session on Tuesday afternoon, was the area of teacher accountability.
As a result of this thinking process I have added two accountability pieces to what we do.
- Adding another response to our PLC recording form
- Our PLC record is a Google form. Teachers record what was worked on, who was in attendance, what division goals are being met, etc. in their PLC time.
- What was added to the form was a response area for how the work done will assist in improving student learning
- The second area is more related to Professional Growth Plans
- Teachers have been focusing on their growth plan goals in their PLC time all year and have aligned the PD they attend to these goals.
- At our year end meetings the following questions will be added as part of the discussion
- In reflecting on your PGP goals, tell me what you did this year to meet the goals?
- What did you learn as a result?
- What will you do before we meet again in the fall to talk about your goals?
Student learning is why we do what we do. There are many factors involved in helping this to happen. School leadership and team members have to remember this is at the forefront of what we do. The conference gave me a lot of time to spend considering these factors and some ideas to assist in moving that process along. As we move forward in my own school and have discussions around what our vision for the school is, the learning I have been involved in over the last few days will continue to influence that process. I’ve already got ideas for our beginning of the year for PD, changes to the physical appearance of the school, and further ways to make us a community of learners.
I believe a lot of the pieces are in place to head in this direction. We have to persevere in this and continue our own journey as learning leaders.
Alberta’s Principal Quality Standards have Providing Instructional Leadership as their fourth leadership dimension. The document describes this quality as follows:
The principal ensures that all students have ongoing access to quality teaching and learning opportunities to meet
the provincial goals of education.
As part of my discussions with teachers in Professional Growth Plan meetings this year, I am asking the question, “In my role as an instructional leader, what can I have permission to look for and discuss with you during and after my classroom visits?” Most teachers are caught off guard by this question, and are not sure how to answer. A few of them were able to come up with an answer on their own but some took a bit of discussion and gentle probing to decide on a focus. The interesting piece is that those who came up with an answer on their own, and those who needed some dialogue all settled on the same thing – student engagement.
The University of Alberta produced a document in 2011 entitled, Student Engagement: What do we know, and what should we do?
While the document states that engagement can be difficult to define, it does lay out what a classroom with student engagement will look like.
- Learning that is relevant, real, and intentionally interdisciplinary – at times moving learning from the classroom into the community.
- Technology-rich learning environments – not just computers, but all types of technology, including scientific equipment, multi-media resources, industrial technology, and diverse forms of portable communication technology (Project Tomorrow, 2010).
- Positive, challenging, and open – sometimes called “transparent” learning climates – that encourage risk-taking and guide learners to reach co- articulated high expectations. Students are involved in assessment for learning and of learning.
- Collaboration among respectful “peer-to-peer” type relationships between students and teachers (horizontal organization model); Professional Learning Communities working together to plan, research, develop, share, and implement new research, strategies, and materials.
- A culture of learning – teachers are learning with students. Language, activities and resources focus on learning and engagement first, and achievement second.
While the research into engagement seems to focus on older grades, there is application to the classrooms that hold our younger students (Prek – 4). What this means for me, is I have to do some investigation into how do I detect engagement when I am in classrooms. I would think it certainly doesn’t only look like quiet students, sitting at their desks working independently. We all know there are students who seem to be totally distracted, and may even seem preoccupied with another task who are soaking up everything being said and done around them.
What I do most appreciate now, is the opportunity to have these discussions with teachers. As we learn together, and talk about what engagement looks like, we will be moving on a path to increase engagement and student achievement in our classrooms.
So, there’s lots I can do to make teachers feel valued (this is only a small sampling of things I can do as a leader):
- Respect them and their time
- Spend time fostering relationships
- Recognizing their professional judgement
- Trust them
- Communicate with them (especially LISTEN to them)
All of these combined with discussions around practice serve to move a school forward.
Now I have to get learning about engagement!!!
(Photo obtained from Pixabay)
I was asked, as a principal with some experience, to share some wisdom with the new principals in Sturgeon School Division. This year we have a lot of schools with new principals and a few with new principals and vice principals. Those of use who have a few years of experience have been asked to provide a video of what we have learned and would like to pass on to those just starting out. This video is the first of three I will be posting over the next while.
I am in a new school this year, so I refer to that in the video (just to provide some context) – and forgive me for the ridiculous expression in the photo grab before the video is played!
Over the last few years I’ve had some thoughts coalescing around how best to use our teachers’ Professional Growth Plans. I’ve struggled for a few years as to how to make the PGP not just a piece of paper that teachers have to fill in at the beginning of the year to fulfill an expectation. I have tried to do things like:
- incorporate mid year meetings to reassess the progress
- allow groups of teachers to establish a group PGP
- ask informal questions throughout the year around PGP goals
While these things have had some effect, and have increased awareness and teacher efficacy around their professional growth, I have never felt that I’ve ‘gotten through’ before. This year I’ve proposed a different approach to teachers and I am getting feedback that is making me think I might be heading in the right direction. As I wrap my mind around how this is playing out, I’ve found that a bit of alliteration has fallen into place. The following are coming together to make this seem like it might work.
- Professional Growth Plans – taking an approach I have used in the past, I have encouraged teachers to work as a group to develop a professional growth plan. I did not dictate (as I never do) what they would look at putting in their plan, but I did encourage them to look for goals that they as a grade level might be interested in pursuing together. So far two of the grade levels have handed in joint PGPs, and one grade level has handed in two sets, with a pair of teacher in each working on the same goals. This first step is all about using the power of the team which increases engagement and accountability.
- Professional Learning Communities – When asked by two of my teachers on separate occasions what they would be dictated to work on in their PLCs this year, I was a little taken aback. To me, what the teachers work on in their PLCs should, with little guidance, be an organic process. The work done, needs to be work that the group sees as important.
- As a division, we have embraced Excellence in Teaching as a Value. I have no doubt that the teachers are striving for that all the time, and given the power will do what they can to proceed in that direction.
- As administrators in Sturgeon School Division, we are looking at the best practices around PLCs and how to ensure they are productive, and work toward our values. The discussions I have had with the teachers ensure they are aware of the values we hold, and have shown me that they are on board.
- By tasking the PLCs to work on goals set in their Professional Growth Plans, they have now understood the intentionality of the goals they have made and will be revisiting them each time they meet as a PLC group.
- Professional Development – the third piece of the alliterative puzzle is PD. In the last few years the concept of PD has shifted from an activity we do outside of the building in a room with a speaker. PD now encompasses the very powerful practice of getting together as professionals and having conversations around practice and learning. The PLC has become one very potent professional development practice. When an entire group of people is working toward the same goals, PD becomes easier to plan in a traditional sense as well. Teachers working toward the same goals will be interested in learning and applying the PD they have participated in.
In actuality, all three Ps are one and the same. the professional growth plan drives the PD of the PLC. As long as we are willing to accept the POWER of a group of teachers getting together to discuss practice, we can have PD anytime, anywhere.
This has been a very interesting week. I found out on Monday, that after six years, I am being transferred to a principalship in another school.
I am ready.
But, DARN IT, I am going to miss my current school – great staff, great parents and amazing kids. Almost everything I am as a leader I owe to that place. I did feel ready to take on a leadership role when I first started as Vice Principal at Bon Accord Community School in 2008. Even though I thought I was ready, I have learned a LOT. One of the most important things that became clear to me was that one of the most important roles of a leader is not what you do for people, but how you make them feel. That learning, to me has made all the difference.
A leader has to get things done, the school has to move forward. Learning has to happen. Resources have to be acquired and allocated. There are tasks that range from the mundane to the very vital. There are the myriad of meetings. There are even occasions where we get to be responsible for cleaning up someone’s mess. Our job is full of “THINGS”.
Since Tuesday, when the move was announced, I’ve received numerous phone calls, emails, posts on our school FaceBook page and have talked personally with a number of parents. Most have offered congratulations and have expressed disappointment in my move to another school. I even received one very angry email from a parent. (not sure yet how to respond to that one). I know I am not even close to a having ‘arrived’ as a leader. I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But I know that keeping this in mind, has made my time at Bon Accord, to some degree, successful.
We can’t always make everyone happy. Very few decisions can satisfy everyone. However, we can work to establish a culture of caring, trust and respect, that makes everyone feel valued. In a welcoming environment and an aim of touching the spirits of the people we work with and for, we will be able to move things forward much easier. People respond to that kind of approach. They buy in. They remember.
Over the last few years, in addition to lots of other great things, we’ve developed a new mission and vision. This has helped move me to spend considerable time thinking about how to implement both my own vision and our school vision. A necessary part of the process is putting systems in place to make that happen. I decided near the end of the last school year that the way we utilized our staff teams at school just wasn’t working. We now have a:
- School Leadership Team
- Lighthouse Team
- Seven Habits Certification Team
- Staff Wellness Team
The first three teams have been in place for the last two years, and the school leadership team has been around for quite a while. The wellness team is new this year.
I knew that the teams weren’t necessarily doing all that they could to make our school function more efficiently and have the best overall benefit for students, staff and community. I made a change in two ways. Firstly I changed the composition of each of the teams. The second change was around the role of each team.
The Leadership team is now composed of The school admin, counselor and anyone on staff involved in the Divisional Leadership cohort or is working on their Master’s Degree. I also added a support staff member to allow room for that voice in our decision making. This team added the task of planning our school based PD activities. Our division is allowing school control of PD for both professional and support staff to a much higher degree. While we are glad to have this control, we decided that the process must be undertaken carefully and with a mind to benefit us in the greatest way possible. Our team continues to work on its roles in
Leadership as well PD Planning and implementation. We will refine our process and skill in this area.
Both the Lighthouse and Certification teams are directly tied to the Seven Habits Program we are part of. We have worked together with our sister school, (Lilian Schick School) where we send our grade 4 students to for grades 5 – 9. The teams work to implement the program in our schools and train our new staff and parents about the program. Changes made in these teams have resulted in a clarity of what each team needs to do, as well as tasking them with keeping the program moving forward. These roles too, are still being developed, and the need for establishing clear goals continues to be a focus.
The Wellness team is new this year. We all know that there is stress in our job and being mindful of that, I decided it was important to have a committee specifically designated to “address the stress”. We try to have a monthly activity in which whoever can attend is welcome. Putting a committee like this together demonstrates the value in staff relationships and collegiality.
Being mindful in putting together teams that move the school in a desired direction was, in my opinion, a good idea. We are making progress. We are moving forward.