Can we separate form from function in education?

I’m currently reading “The Learning Paradox” by Jim Harris.  It is a book written for the business world, but a large part of his message can be transferred to our world of education, leading and learning.  He writes that the learning paradox is that in order to change, people must become comfortable with the discomfort of learning, yet people fear discomfort and generally wish to avoid it, hence the paradox.  You must do what you are afraid of if you want to learn. 

One of his messages is in order to be successful, leaders must separate form from function, and he uses the paradigm shift in the banking world to illustrate this.  The paradigm shift came from the introduction of on-line banking.  Banking institutions that did not envision or embrace on-line banking were racing to catch up to those that did. Banking is essential, he writes, but banks are not.

Can we make this same separation in education:  Schooling is essential, but schools are not?  Within the context of today’s technology and  the technology that is coming, can we effectively teach students outside the physical form of a school building?  How does that redefine the relationship between teacher and student within the context of the content?  How does that redefine to role of a school leader?

Curious as to your thoughts.

Reflections on Instructional Rounds

So I’ve been away from the blogosphere for some time now, and the longer I was away, the harder it was for me to get the drive to develop a post.  I love my blog, and how it’s helped me to analyze, dissect, and fill out my thinking on practice, leadership, and education.  And now with my summer stretching out in front of me, I planned to luxuriate in a stack of books I have been wanting to read.

In the fall I skimmed “Instructional Rounds in Education”, and it was first on my list to re-read intentionally.  I had my pen, highlighter and post-its ready to make notes (my husband scratching his head on how I could categorize this as reading for pleasure), my couch cushions just right behind my back, and a large iced tea at my side.

One small 3-word sentence was the first to stop me in my tracks: “Language is culture”.  I couldn’t continue reading as my mind had gone to an altogether different place. I began thinking of all the ways in which we demonstrate the culture in a school building by our words, phrases, body language and tone of voice – not just the ones we use, but what we tolerate, and thereby implicitly accept and condone.  I’ve heard teachers in my building mutter “idiot” as they walked away from a student; I’ve had a teacher describe students as “retarded” as she’s describing their attempts at writing out a conflict that had arisen at recess.  One uses a harsh tone in every interaction with students and staff. There are teachers who speak about children – children – in the most contemptuous ways.  So what does that say about a school culture?  Lots.  Where does that leave me as a school administrator?

I also have heard teachers express real love and empathy for students in our building.  They’ve spoken excitedly about how the students are learning, about using a SmartBoard in their classroom for the first time, or about their first foray into blogging.  They regularly talk about and with students in genuinely caring ways.  Thankfully, this type of language is more common than the previous examples, but it is the negative that undermines our school culture and corrodes it from within.

Another point that resonated with me was the concept of separating the person (i.e., the teacher) from the practice. I often come across this with teacher who seem the most resistant to change of practice.  They feel that how they teach reflects who they are as a teacher, therefore as a person, and if there is an expectation that teaching practices should change then essentially they are being asked to change as a person.  No wonder they’re resistant.

Instructional practice does not equal the person.  Yes, as people in the profession of teaching we are driven and influenced by our values, commitments and beliefs, but our practice is merely a vehicle to getting to a result.  But we are practitioners of teaching, which means we hold a set of skills – skills that can be molded, that can evolve and that can change.  These skills are external to us.  If we cannot distinguish between a person’s skill set and them as a person, what does that mean?  As as administrator, you should expect that I can make that distinction.  If I couldn’t there would be a lot of people I disliked simply because their skill set was archaic, ineffective or contrary to best known practices, and vice-versa – teachers with strong skill sets that I wouldn’t necessarily like as people.

Embedded within this person vs. practice is the notion of “teaching styles”.  I’ve often heard teachers refer to their styles, or mention that their colleague just has a different teaching  style when in a parent meeting.  This trivializes the idea that as teachers we have a set of practices, and undermines the need for schools and districts to develop shared practices and shared understandings when it comes to teaching and learning.  Yes, we all want the same outcome (i.e., student learning and success) but to accept that we are all getting there in our own unique way does nothing to catalyze improvement in classrooms, schools or boards.  The authors use a funny analogy of a pilot announcing as the plane is landing that while his colleagues may land a plane one way, his style is to not use the flaps.  No big deal right?  Acceptable?  No.

Our school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, has adopted the principles and format described in this book.  For me, it has changed the way I intend to approach classroom visits, teacher performance appraisals, conversations with colleagues, staff and parents, and how I plan to embed learning into our staff meetings.  As our board continues its District Review practices, I’m confident that these principles will be visible and explicit in the process.  An exciting time for me to be an administrator!

Buckle up!

cc Gary Burke via flickr

When I was little and growing up in Ottawa, I desperately wanted to ride a roller coaster.  I would watch the commercials for Canada’s Wonderland and my heart would race at the thought of dropping, twirling, zooming, and (gasp) loop-dee-looping, all at what seemed like the speed of light!  I was horribly jealous of any of my friends who took trips with their families to the big amusement parks.  I even wrote a long and detailed (fictional) account of a wild summer of traveling to different amusement parks to ride the roller coasters for the proverbial “Write what you did over the summer” assignment.  I got an A from my teacher and a stern talking-to from my mother about the importance of telling the truth.  I had to make do with Ottawa’s annual National Capital Exhibition visits every August, and even though I had fun, it tamed when compared to my extravangant fantasies about roller coasters.

It wasn’t until I was an adult with two children that my mother-in-law lent us her timeshare condo in Collingwood, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Toronto, home of Canada’s Wonderland.  We arranged to visit the amusement park, and even at 30 years old, I was as giddy as a my kids.  By the end of the day, my fantasies had come true and I was hooked!

I told that story so that I could tell you this one: last week I had a day at work where I had never felt so stressed, so defeated, so ineffective and so inexperienced that I went home and curled up on my couch with my head in my husband’s lap and cried.  I’m not embarrassed to admit it – it was a very low point for me professionally and I genuinely questioned my role and my choice to become not only an administrator, but a teacher.  I could rhyme off the list of Murphy’s Law moments that made up the day, from no occasional teacher for a staff member, to student issues, to missing a highly anticipated intern session, but it was a meeting that I attempted to facilitate between a teacher and a parent that I felt shone a spotlight on my “greenness”.  I wasn’t able to be at the meeting when it started, and when I came in it already seemed tense.  From there emotions became raw and the conversation became defensive.  I realized right away what was happening, and I (cue the superhero music) thought I could save the day.  So I desperately tried to salvage a meeting that was quickly going downhill, and really what I was doing was grabbing a shovel and digging us furiously deeper.  The teacher was left feeling unsupported and that her professionalism and integrity were being questioned, and the parent was left feeling unheard.  As I debriefed with my principal, I shared that I knew that I should have gently ended the meeting with a promise to review the information that had been shared with the commitment to coming back together at another time to work out next steps.  I shared my feelings of guilt and how I felt that I had let down both the teacher and the parent.  I won’t be shaking this feeling anytime soon, but the small silver lining was that I learned something from the experience.

Fast forward to yesterday.  An awesome day.  I supported students all day in the classrooms.  I was invited into a classroom by a teacher who was beginning the blogging journey with her students – they had grouped together to plan a name, a purpose and how the would invite comments from others, if any.  Student involvement and ownership was evident and the excitement was barely contained.  They asked good questions, and it was obvious that there was much thought and planning going into the project.  I can’t wait to see what they develop, and I know that if they have questions for me to which I don’t know the answers, I have a fabulous PLN to help.  At the end of the day, I could barely refrain from laughing out loud in the car on the drive home I felt so energized and uplifted.  I didn’t question at all my decision to become a teacher and administrator – I felt validated and that I am exactly where I want to be.

So I don’t live near an amusement park and I don’t ride an actual roller coaster whenever I want.  But I have something better.  I have the stomach-dropping moments of realizing when you’ve made a misstep with an esteemed colleague and a valued parent.  I have the dizzying, twirling loop-dee-looping that comes from questioning, reflecting and learning about yourself. I have the weightless-bum-out-of-your-seat moments when working with the wonder and enthusiasm of students.  I have my roller coaster.  Keep your hands and feet inside at all times!

Out of the mouths of junior/intermediate students

I asked my grade 6/7/8 English class a question this past Friday:  What skills/attitudes do you think makes an effective principal or vice-principal?  First we discussed what effective means, then they worked in partners to discuss, record and represent all the qualities they felt made a “good”  (I say effective, they say “good”) principal or vice-principal.

Their answers, which we shared in a circle (“What, like in kindergarten????”) were quite telling.  First on almost every list was discipline.  That’s it.  Just the one word.  Discipline.  My favourite word…NOT!  Okay.  I can see why they would have that perception.  I must have made a face because they were quick to expand and add, “It’s not like we think you yell or anything.  But you have to be able to help kids with their problems without embarrassing them. And you do that a lot.”  Phew!

Other skills/attitudes they listed:

  • creative
  • not biased
  • patience and tolerance
  • focused on students
  • loves coming to work
  • involved
  • “in the loop” – when asked to elaborate they wanted someone up-to-date in the field, specifically in terms of technology and social media
  • healthy and balanced
  • remembers what it’s like to be a teacher (I would go even further and add what it was like to be a student as well)
  • giving of their time
  • reasonable
  • good education and lots of knowledge
  • be like Mrs. Paynter (these two girls were looking for a laugh, or bonus points or something :))

I’ve been contemplating their lists all weekend.  As part of their discussion, I asked where they got the basis for their lists, and they all said, “From watching you and talking with you.”  It’s powerful to hear that from the students.  They’re watching, forming opinions and ideals about what kind of teacher and administrator I am. What an honour to have them share that with me.

Now, I didn’t set off to have my ego stroked with this activity.  This is leading to the next stage where I am going to ask the same question, but this time within the context of themselves as learners preparing to transition on to the next grade (June is coming faster than we think!). The grade 6s are preparing for the intermediate grades, and all the changes that comes with it; the grade 7s will be inheriting the title of “oldest in the school” and the responsibility and perceptions that often come with that; and the grade 8s will be making one of the most significant transitions of their school career - high school.  So what skills and attitudes do they think they’ll need to be successful?

Taken from Shannon Smith, students will then graphically represent what their brains will look like on grade 7, 8, or 9.  When we’re done, I’ll post the results and hopefully generate a discussion.

I’m excited to see what they come up with!

Impact of teacher contact and feedback

Adrienne Paynter - self-portrait of a photographer

Right now I’m sitting in a hotel room at a Best Western in Barrie, Ontario.  My daughter Adrienne and I have just returned from an information session and portfolio review for the digital photography program at Georgian College (indulge me in a proud Mommy moment – they said her portfolio was the strongest they’ve seen – yay!).  Current students from several of the design and visual arts programs took a few minutes to talk about why they chose the college over others, what they love about the school, etc.  Although I was there as a mom (did I tell you what they said about Adrienne’s portfolio?), my educator hat kept popping on.  Every single student spoke to the significance of having close contact with their teachers, the immediate, personal feedback they get on their work, and how this combination of teacher contact and constructive feedback has helped them grow as students and increased their confidence to step out into their respective fields. 

I’ve heard teachers say that they need to prepare students for high school, or post-secondary, or the work force by stepping back and not “babying” students.  Or say that giving explicit feedback is unrealistic as the students move on in school: “This is grade 6.  I shouldn’t have to hold his hand.  They’re not going to do this for him in middle school.”  Or, “She’s in high school now.  Do you think her college or university professors are going to invest this much time in each of their students?”  Maybe not all professors, and maybe not all post-secondary institutions.  But many certainly are.  And students notice it, appreciate it, and credit it for their growth and achievements.  When teachers look that far ahead, they lose sight of what’s in front of them. They’ve given themselves permission to relinquish the responsibility of what is essentially the core of effective teaching, and called it “preparing them for the real world”.   Yes, teachers prepare students for the real world, but by teaching them, in schools, by investing in the use of effective strategies that yield lasting results. Not by just throwing them out of the nest and waiting for them to fly.

Oh, and did I tell you what they said about Adrienne’s portfolio?