Sunday, September 29, 2013

What do I need to improve?....

Education discussions these days are often centered around questions like, "What are the things we need to improve?", "How can we do this better?", and, "How can we make school more engaging for our students?".  These are great questions that deserve our attention.  In schools on days like the Professional Development day just past, these are exactly the questions we ask.  We place our focus on topics likes Instructional Strategies, Assessment Practices, Student Engagement and Connecting with our students and our communities.

I am extremely proud to work at a great school, full of passionate, professional educators and motivated, respectful and enthusiastic students.  I often feel spoiled to have the opportunity to work with and around such inspiring and talented individuals.  But when I take the focus of Professional conversations off the system and our staff and put it on myself, I find there are many things I need to improve.
My background and attitudes lead me to being a 'glass-half-full' optimist, and I usually see the good in things.  When looking back at blog posts I have written, most of them are enthusiastic endorsements of all the fantastic stuff I see around our school.  As an instructional leader, I also believe that one of the most effective ways of getting people to move in a certain direction is to find examples of what I think is positive, and celebrate it for others to note.
At a recent Principal's meeting, the Professional Development discussion was focused on three questions: "Do you have strong a professional learning community in your school?", "If yes, what was your role in creating it?  If no, what can you do to enhance it?", and, "What are the themes/focus(es) for your school's professional growth this year?".  It was an incredibly rich conversation that went well beyond the hour it was scheduled for.  People spoke passionately about their school's plans for the year, and what they have done to help guide those plans. 
One of the themes that came up repeatedly was the idea of utilizing the 'appreciative lens' (celebrating what we are already doing that fits with where we want to go), while still creating the 'cognitive dissonance' that is required to have professionals think.  People all need to be encouraged when trying something new, but they also need to be challenged to think about what could be done differently or how it can be done better.  It is a difficult balancing act, and something I need to improve. 
While I am incredibly proud of the great things I see in and around our school, there is still much we can do to get better.  I want to see our school fully embrace Standards Based Assessment by establishing marks bins that reflect those standards as opposed to the measurement tool being used (tests, assignments, homework etc.).  I would also like to see us continue to promote critical thinking and problem solving by encouraging students to take more academic risks (we have a very competitive student population who, understandably, are worried about 'getting it right' for the score that may help get them into University).  In order for students to take some risks, learn from the mistakes, and try again, I believe teachers need to role-model the same behaviour.  I need to push our staff to try new things, giving them permission to make a mistake, learn from the effort, refine and try again.  To that end, the video below will be the focus of our next Professional Development day.
We are already doing much of what I want to see in our school, but where I need to improve is balancing my celebrating the excellence while still creating the dissonance required to help professionals think about improvement.  If not careful, the constant trumpeting of all that is good can breed complacency (people thinking that we are already 'perfect'), or the compliments can become hollow.  Learning how to achieve that balance is going to have to be part of my Professional Growth Plan.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Grade 8 Retreat 2013

I have often wondered "What do parents want most for their children in high school?"  Now that I am a parent of a new high schooler myself, I can better answer the question.  I want my child to be welcomed, to feel connected and to have great pride in his school.  I want him to be challenged and supported, and I want him to be safe.  This is a big responsibility for a school, but one that I am confident we do a very good job of providing.
Each year, one of the ways our school welcomes its newcomers is to host a Grade 8 Retreat.  A team of four extremely dedicated teachers plan and book the trip, collect the fees, organize the activities etc. With the help of 35 student leaders plus 13 other adults, away go over 250 people from J.N. Burnett Secondary.

We have been going to Camp Stillwood, a beautiful sight overlooking Cultus Lake in Chilliwack, BC, for the past 5 years.  The trip is quite frequently referred to as the highlight of their time in high school by our graduates, and this year was no exception.
Getting ready to go!

We have arrived at Stillwood

The dining hall

Team games in the Dome

The closing ceremonies

Group photo just before leaving.  Good times!
We began our trip early Monday morning, gathering in the gym before boarding the buses heading to Cultus Lake.  Once there, the students were fully engaged in activities including: Getting to know your team members, a 4 station rotation of Arts and Crafts (making a picture frame memento), Drama skits, Leadership discussions and Team Building games.  There was also a team Cheer-off, a movie night (this year we watched "42-The Jackie Robinson Story"), the writing of a "Letter to Myself" (which is given back to the students when they graduate), and the highlight of the trip, the Charades tournament.  The camp is very well-equipped to take care of our every need and the food preparation and distribution was extremely high quality.

The students all came home fatigued, but very excited about the connection to their new school.  They told parents all about the new friends they made, the relationships they now have with the senior Leadership students, and how they know their teachers better and see them as regular people who want to help.

As I continue to look at activities through the lens of my 13 year old, Grade 8 son (who goes to a different school), I see that trips and efforts like these, designed to help students feel a greater sense of connection and belonging, go a very long way.

I can not thank enough all of the adults who gave up three days away from their families, the 35 Leadership students who were magnificent in connecting with our Grade 8's, the Stillwood staffers, the Grade 8's who represented themselves, their families and our school so well, and especially the four Burnett staff who put so much time and energy into making the sure the event happened without a hitch.

Following events like last week's, I can truly say, "I am proud to be a Breaker!", and am more confident than ever that we are providing the kind of environment where students quickly become connected and parents can feel good about sending their children.