• School Leadership

    Ten Things I Learned Last Year About School Leadership

    One of the many things I love about my job is that learning is at the heart of the work. Every day I am invited to learn from people, experiences, research, and curriculum subject areas.

    Here are ten things I learned during the 2016/17 School Year:

    #1: There is poetry in Math. I was inspired to keep a wall of my Math learning after taking a Mathematics Leadership course in partnership with Trent University with Dr. Cathy Bruce.

    #2: The Zones of Self-Regulation are for everyone. Our whole school learned about the zones and defined what the “Green Zone” looked like for us. We celebrated at the end of the year with a t-shirt for everyone. Designed by a Grade 5 student.


    #3: When we focus on improving Special Education processes all students win. It’s important to have clear roles and goals.

    #4: Peace is not what is happening around you. Peace is what is happening within you. Self-care is vital.

    #5: Sometimes you just need cake. Celebrate with staff whenever you can. And with students too! My favourite PA Day this year started with cake.

    #6: Streamlining routines and processes helps the brain focus its best energy on the complexities of problem solving. We focused on Special Education, school day transitions and recess. Click here to watch our video about Recess Routines.

    #7: In a small school, all staff are leaders. My staff continuously inspired me with the vision, spirit, and pride for our school.

    #8: Paying attention to the little details can have a big impact.

    #9: Ask for help. There are helpful people out there.

    Our “Buddy Bench” donated by the Colborne Lions Club.

    #10: When the staff truly work as a team, that’s when the magic happens.

    A friend posted this and I loved it–felt it captured the CPS staff well!


  • Life Lessons,  School Leadership

    Thanks to Technology Today I Can Learn Nearly Anything: Top Seven Online Learning Destinations

    Technology and Tradition

    Technology gives us the ability to learn nearly anything. I love that we can access information, processes, and thinking that for many centuries was available only to few. Technology is taking the lid off learning and redefining education.

    There is a major shift in the ways we can learn about anything at anytime happening right now! Today. Part of it is due to the evolution of our electronic devices and part of the shift is due to how educators are using the technology to create learning platforms.

    John Hattie says that “the computer is not the teacher.” My iPad doesn’t make me smarter, but how I use my iPad could change my life. Innovative teachers are using technology to make the world their classroom and providing access to learning experiences for anyone with a device and Internet connection. Our traditions in education need to change too!

    This list is big. Be sure to take it in slowly, coming back to try another hyperlink. I thought about sharing fewer links but changed my mind. One of the best things about online learning is choice. There are so many choices out there!

    Here are 7 amazing learning experiences online:


    1. Google. Most people use Google to research, but are you maximizing what Google can do? Did you know that Google algorithms predict what you are looking for so your search results may be different than someone else’s? Did you know that Google has country codes? Take a free online Google course in Power Searching or Advanced Power Searching or use Google Search Operators to broaden your options. I promise you will find things you didn’t even know were out there!
    2. Free or very low cost Virtual Schools. Earn Ontario high school credits through the Independent Learning Centre or in the United States try Stanford University High School. But this is the one that has me most excited: Take free online courses from the world’s best universities through edX, a site that has the super power of Harvard, MIT, and other education heavy weights.
    3. Online workshops, tutorials, and webinars. A number of fabulous sites are popping up with outstanding learning opportunities. From Lynda.com that offers online video tutorials to Udemy that offers more than 32,000 online courses, the opportunities to learn are vast. And many teachers are utilizing these platforms to expand their classrooms. I love that I can create a course on Udemy too (I’ll have to add that to my bucket list). A favourite of many high school teachers is Khan Academy where there is a diverse collection of lessons on a range of subjects (Math, Science, Computer Programming, History, Art, Economics, etc).
    4. Industry specific professional organizations. In Education there are a number of amazing places to go to learn and connect with educators around the world. The articles posted through ASCD are awesome and if you’re like me and too busy to visit the site, it will come to you. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter so their articles appear in your feed. From collaborative blogs (Connected Principals) to MOOCs to resource databases like Edugains, quality professional learning is no longer limited to which workshops you attend on a PA Day. Seek out your industry’s top learning sites.
    5. Social Media. I learn a lot from Facebook and Twitter because I try to find people and companies to follow that have something that I need to know. Or I use social media to connect with and engage with other educators. Twitter has some great chat feeds. I really like #amwriting to connect with other writers. My favourites in education are: #onted, #ontedleaders, and #edchat. Many groups will designate a night when everyone is online. You put the hashtag into the search box and follow/respond to each other. Twitter interviews are also becoming common, where an expert is asked questions by a host as well as anyone else who joins in the discussion. Find out where your people are (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) and connect. (I find Twitter or Pinterest are the best places to connect with educators right now).
    6. Technology tools can make learning easier. A current trend in education is blended learning, where some of the learning happens with technology and some of the learning happens face-to-face. Whenever I explore the tools to use with classroom learning my eyes pop out! Truly. Check out Diigo, a site that helps you sort, tag, annotate, and share research. Verso helps to give every student in your class a voice. Edsby is an amazing learning management system our board has just started using. Prism promotes collaborative interpretation of texts and would have been a dream when I was teaching English. The WayBack Machine allows you access news from the day an event happened.  Wolfram Alpha is incredible too–it will solve any Math problem and can answer questions in a variety of other subjects. WRITERS: you will love Wolfram Alpha!!!!!
    7. Text, audio or video content sharing sites. I’ve always been a big fan of Audible for downloading audio books–for me it’s always non-fiction. I’ve recently discovered Sound Cloud a site with lots of new music and podcasts. YouTube has always been a go-to, especially when I get stuck with my technology. There is always a video to bail me out. Blogs are more popular than ever and by subscribing to the ones I love, updates appear in my email inbox. Many people love article collecting apps like Zite or Instapaper or Flipboard too.


    Click here for some notes on the tech tools I use to organize my work and life.

  • School Leadership

    How Can We Support Student Well-Being and Mental Health in Schools?

    Together we can make an impact.

    The Good News


    This summer I spent a lot of time with my cousin who wrote a six-part blog series about collective impact that I followed in August. It got me thinking about how this type of intentional work within schools and within our broader school communities could better support students.

    Promoting well-being is a focus in Ontario schools. It includes supporting the whole child: cognitive, emotional, social, and physical well-being. The most challenging area is mental health.

    We have access to more experts and resources than in the history of schooling. We have processes in place to support students in crisis and ongoing training for all staff. There is a lot to celebrate. But I think everyone would agree that there is still more work to do. Our kids still need more.

    Many adults in a school may be working independently or as a team to support one child. Each person has a different role to play. Imagine the jobs and skill sets of these people:

    • Principal
    • Vice Principal
    • Special Education Resource Teacher
    • Classroom Teacher
    • Guidance Counsellor
    • Student Success Teacher
    • Child and Youth Work
    • Educational Assistant
    • School Board Counsellor
    • Student Retention Counsellors
    • Board Interdisciplinary Team (including a Psychologist and Mental Health Nurse)
    • Special Education Consultant
    • Behaviour Specialist
    • Superintendent
    • ….and we are part of a special Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools project.

    In the community we have access to various services and supports:

    I’ve worked with each of these agencies and utilized every support available to help kids and they are all amazing.

    Schools have access to resources I fantasized about at the beginning of my career. The new Ministry document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health is fabulous. The much talked-about Health and Physical Education curriculum integrates mental health concepts into all content areas of the Healthy Living strand. Edugains has expanded its resources to include Mental Health resources for teachers. Our board offers staff access to training in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. From CAMH to TAMI to Stomping Out Stigma student groups, we have hit a much needed tipping point for gaining support in schools.

    But despite all the agencies, expert support, and caring parents, kids are still in distress and there is sometimes a feeling of helplessness in schools when trying to support students who struggle with mental health issues.

    My Big Question


    We all want the same thing: healthy whole-hearted children and youth.

    I wonder if we’re making an impact. I wonder if we’re missing something. I wonder if there is more we can do. I wonder if we’re trying to do too much too fast. I wonder if we are being intentional enough about the way we are working alone and together. I wonder why sometimes even when a student has access to every support, s/he still suffers every day. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep me up at night.

    Is it that more students are struggling or that we’re getting better at noticing? According to an in-depth CBC feature anxiety disorders affect six percent of children and youth. Twenty-two percent of children will be affected by anxiety in their lifetime. The buzz in school staff rooms and on social media is that it feels like more students struggle with anxiety now than in the past and the cases seem much more complex. So it might be both: more students are struggling and more educators are noticing just how complex mental health issues can be.

    So my big question is how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being? 

    Autonomy AND Collaboration?


    This is too big a problem to solve alone. Supporting student well-being is a job for the whole village.

    What is my role?  I am one person in the village with a specific skill set and knowledge base. We need to better understand the roles of each individual in our village and be clear about what collaboration can look like.

    A couple years ago at a high school we tried looking at this with our Student Success Team. On our team were vice principals, guidance counsellors, special education teachers, coop teachers, attendance counsellor, school board counsellor, consultant, and a student success teacher. We met weekly to discuss students who were struggling with academic and socio-emotional issues. Classroom teachers referred names to our team, we collected information, looked for trends, brainstormed supports, and followed-up with the student who needed support. I understood my role as a vice principal but I wanted to know more about the other roles. I wondered if there was overlap or gaps in service.

    We created a google-doc and sat around the conference table with our laptops. The headings were something like:

    • Name: Jessica
    • Role: VP
    • Goal: what is the purpose of your job?
    • Meetings: what information do you require at a Student Success Meeting to do your job?
    • Strategies: what strategies do you use to support students?
    • Students: which students do you serve?
    • Successes: what works well?
    • Challenges: what is most challenging?

    We went round-robin and filled in the chart with as much detail as possible. Then I synthesized the trends and patterns into this summary document so we could make decisions about next steps: Reflecting on Student Success Meetings.

    This thinking was a good start for our team in being more intentional. Where we fell short was on taking the time to really develop a solid plan from here. We had some great ideas and implemented some changes, but we didn’t have metrics. We needed to return to these questions and better monitor our work along the way. We needed to measure what impact our changes made. The second year would have been crucial in consolidating this thinking/learning and maybe the team continued to refine their collective work but I moved to another school.

    Collective Impact as a Possible Solution


    If supporting students with mental health issues in schools is something I can’t do on my own, then how will we work together? How will we ensure efficient service delivery? How can we prevent students from falling through gaps in service?

    We rely on the strength of home, school, and community partnerships. We rely on the expertise of others–I think that can be the scary part for us as educators. We like to be in control and to support students well we have to acknowledge our limits in schools and trust our community partners. We have to learn what success looks like and even though our hearts cry out that it looks like happiness for all, that may not be realistic. We live in a complex world with complex problems.

    The first step is to develop a clear vision and ensure a common understanding. We need to put all our questions out there even if they fly back at us like boomerangs without answers.

    Ontario has a comprehensive strategy called Open Minds, Healthy Minds that includes building resilience through schools. Our board has an amazing leadership team supporting schools. I am blessed to work with a dedicated school staff. This collective work has already started and I feel confident that we will all get better at supporting students in time. We need to persevere.

    In my humble opinion here are some other things I think we need to start doing together:

    • Teach parents how to advocate for accommodations and supports for student mental health issues the way parents have learned to advocate for special education needs. We need to help parents navigate the systems. I want to learn more about what parents need.
    • Prioritize meetings with school teams, board teams, community teams, provincial teams, national teams, and/or global teams to strategize how to work together with more intention, to learn from each other, and to check for gaps or overlaps in services. (Perhaps we need collective impact consultants like my cousin to bring teams together. An outside facilitator can help us stretch our thinking, build trusting relationships, and bring more purpose to our work).
    • Communicate better what everyone is doing to support mental health issues in children and youth…and in a simple, efficient way. (Some days I feel I don’t have enough information and others I’m on information overload).
    • Leverage technology to build online learning communities that include stakeholders learning together and problem-solving from various perspectives. I know these must exist but the people I know don’t know where they are. We need to know. I would love a safe, confidential forum to discuss student well-being with other school leaders and experts as need arises.
    • Plan for how to support students in moments of crisis at school and to support students with ongoing mental health issues. (I am learning how to support students in moments of crisis, but I am unclear of my role as an educator when a student demonstrates a mental health issue over time–from months to years.)
    • Learn how to better cope or where to go next when nothing changes when interventions are utilized. How do we know when we’ve done enough? As one doctor told me, mental health issues can be fatal. I struggle with accepting that. I struggle with knowing what to do when a student is receiving treatment but we are not seeing changes at school and years pass–this is why we sometimes feel helpless. We want our support to lead to change and sometimes it doesn’t.

    I’m optimistic that in my lifetime we will continue to see more supports for children and youth. I’m optimistic that educators will feel more confident in the role they can play in supporting student well-being. I’m optimistic that if we are more intentional within our schools and communities good things will come. We will reach another tipping point.

    Questions are good. Let’s start there. And my question remains: how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?

    The answer lies in our collective commitment to action. Commitment is a promise to do or to give something. Are you committed or just interested? We need people who are going “to do or to give” sitting at the table. What are you willing and able to do or to give? We each have a role in this village.

  • School Leadership

    Five Essential Things You Need to Know About Learning

    10 Things You Need to Know ABout Learning

    Learning is a process with two key phases: action and reflection.

    We have an experience, we reflect on the experience, we expand our understanding by making new connections, and then we act, trying something new with the learning. Teachers describe this as instruction and assessment. Instruction is the action, the doing, the experience. Assessment is reflecting on the impact of the learning on the self or the student.

    The current model for learning design in schools is to begin a new lesson with a Minds On task, something to trigger prior knowledge or spark curiosity. Then we move to the Action part of the lesson, the things the students are doing to learn the new skill or explore new knowledge. The students own the learning, the teacher facilitates the process. Finally, there is Consolidation, a chance to reflect on the learning, to see where it fits in the students’ understanding of other things, and to decide on next steps.

    We can all engage in action and reflection whether we are learning formally through a course or teaching ourselves how to bake.

    • Self: When I am learning something new, how do I build reflection into the process?
    • Teacher: How do I balance instruction and assessment?
    • Leader: How do I share my learning process with staff and students?

    Learning feels like a rollercoaster.


    When we learn our energy is affected. Learning is change. Sometimes we feel excited and positively energized by learning and sometimes we feel frustrated and negatively bogged down by learning. It’s normal to feel a combination of both when we are learning something new. In fact, the best learning happens when we feel a combination of familiarity and disorientation, clarity and confusion.

    I always know I’m learning when I get angry. Typically I’m not an angry person so when I feel my emotions shifting I know I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone to a more vulnerable place. The challenge and conflict can overwhelm me. I wonder how an hour ago I felt so confident and how now I feel like an absolute mess. But inevitably when I stick with it a path out of the pit emerges and I climb out of the darkness into the light a new woman.

    Learning Pit

    • Self: How can I sustain my focus during the difficult parts of learning, when I’m in the pit surrounded by darkness?
    • Teacher: How can I teach my students perseverance?
    • Leader: How can I leverage motivation and purpose to inspire staff to accept the learning challenge and better cope with the stresses that come with change?

    Learning looks like a carnival.


    Learning sparks intrigue, curiosity, and delight, offering many choices and modes of experience. Carnivals invite us to enjoy them on our terms, spending our time (and money) where we want whether we spend hours at the dunk tank or the ring toss or equal amounts of time at each feature. They support individual experiences and collective experiences.

    When we really look at learning there are many things going on at once. Individuals make choices constantly about what they will embrace and what they will resist. We learn for ourselves and our own gain, but we also learn in relation to the energy of the group surrounding us.

    I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was resistance and there was low engagement. Was learning happening? Were we going to take these ideas back to our schools to implement in our classes? Probably not.

    Then I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was encouraging and there was high engagement. It made me want to take more risks, plunge into new layers of thinking, and make connections between the experience in the room and my classroom.

    Learning is most impactful when there is a high level of engagement, collective enthusiasm, and individual choice.

    • Self: What motivates me to learn something new?
    • Teacher: What does a high level of engagement look like in the classroom?
    • Leader: How can we mobilize our school communities to generate more collective enthusiasm?

    Learning tastes like my cooking.


    If I learn slowly with careful preparation and attention to detail the rewards are far greater than when I learn quickly. Fast learning is about as good for us as fast food. It fills an immediate need but it doesn’t provide the value of a healthy, home cooked meal. In today’s world we need both types of learning to suit different needs. Fast learning is figuring out how to use social media to find and connect to friends. Slow learning is figuring out how to sustain lasting friendships.

    Fast learning is reading the latest news about global learning. Slow learning is reflecting on how global warming affects my life and what I need to do to have a lighter footprint.

    The Information Age has overwhelmed us with constant, ubiquitous fast learning. It’s such a blessing to have access to knowledge on anything at the press of the button. But as individuals, teachers, and leaders we need to persist in the pursuit of slow learning, of reading to understand, of thinking critically about the information and its implications to our lives.

    My cooking is as good as the time I spend doing it. Meals that take hours to prepare are far more nourishing and memorable than meals that took minutes to toss together. When we feel tired and sick, we often look to our diet, making changes to invite more energy. Let’s apply that idea to our learning. When we feel stuck and we are not seeing progress in our work and our lives and our projects, then let’s look to our learning. Slow learning is about the process, the journey, the intentional steps toward a goal. Begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Create a learning plan, like a recipe, that shows a singular focus, a sequence of steps, and a desired result.

    • Self: What does my current learning diet mostly consist of, fast learning or slow learning?
    • Teacher: How can I create conditions in my classroom to nurture slow learning?
    • Leader: How can I model slow learning for staff in the pursuit of my individual learning goals and our school learning goals?

    Learning moves like a spiral.


    Learning is continuous, expanding, and moving. Each time we learn we open up more opportunities for learning something else. Lessons repeat over time, bringing us deeper into our understanding. The learning spiral moves through our days from birth to death, affecting our choices and values and relationships.

    From the earliest humans, we’ve collectively learned about technology, each century evolving into more refined methods of efficiency and effectiveness. As a species we reflect on what went wrong in previous generations to try and make better decisions in this one. The same lessons repeat year after year, decade after decade; they always have and always will. Learning is the soul of evolution and learning is our gateway to personal and collective change. Learning is natural.

    Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about 10,000 hours of practice making an expert: slow learning over time with action and reflection. Our school curriculums are designed to support this idea. Last year our school focused on strategies for multiplication. Every class from Kindergarten to Grade 8 did a multiplication task, modified to grade level, about the number of muffins the baker made. It was amazing to see the continuum of learning spread out in front of us in the student work. As the students got older, their strategies for problem solving were more sophisticated. Even though they may have solved a similar problem seven years prior, Grade 8 students now solved the problem in a different way that accommodated more complexities. And these students will continue to learn about approaches to problem solving (whether in math or life) beyond the walls of our school.

    • Self: How have I learned about problem solving over the course of my life? What do I still need to learn?
    • Teacher: How can I use metaphor as a way to support my students in reflecting on their learning in a meaningful way?
    • Leader: What problems need solving in my school? In education generally? What is my first step toward finding solutions?

    Learning moves like a spiral.-2


  • School Leadership

    Intentional Planning for Back to School: Principal Checklist

    Back to School

    How do you prepare for the return to work after an amazing vacation? We know transitions can be tough on our students, but they can be tough on adults too. As a teacher I often started my transition back to work slowly before my official return to work date.

    • Day 1: Show up at the school. That’s it. Park the car. Go inside. Walk around. Spend 15-20 minutes chatting with whoever crossed my path. Go home.
    • Day 2: Spend a couple hours in my assigned classroom locating my resources, prepping bulletin boards, and making to-do lists.
    • Day 3: Stay at the school from the normal start time to lunch with a focus on planning the first week back, reflecting on my organizational systems and work flow.
    • Day 4: This was usually a full day and a scheduled PA Day for all teachers to attend.

    Now that my responsibilities have expanded the transition plan is much more complicated but I still use many of the same strategies I used as a teacher. As a principal I need to prepare myself for a successful transition, but I also need to create conditions so my staff and students have a great start-up.

    First, I get my house in order.

    • Organize my closets. Move the casual summer clothes aside. Take stock on my work clothes, deciding which pieces have seen better days and need replacing, and which items I’ll need to pick up. I don’t do much “Back to School” shopping anymore. I find September too hot to wear fall clothes so I usually wait until around Thanksgiving to buy my new stuff for the year.
    • Decide on an outfit for the first day of school. For some reason I always overthink my clothes for this one day of the year–every year.
    • Lunch container inventory and purchase a new lunch bag. Prep and freeze some lunch food so I have something to grab quickly when it gets busy.
    • Thorough house cleaning.
    • Reflect on upcoming year, reviewing calendar for personal events and needs. Write out my daily schedule with my preferred wake-up time, leave the house time, and leave work time.
    • Review list of summer house projects and determine when I can reschedule them–Christmas break? March break? Next summer?
    • Do anything else at home that needs attention because I might not get time to organize or reflect again until Christmas break. September to December is my busiest time of the year.

    Then, I get my school in order.

    • Organize my office. Purge files and papers that are not needed. Review books to move from my office library to the staff professional learning library.
    • Organize my systems for workflow.
      • This year I’m using Insightly to organize my projects and tasks. The features for creating pipelines and activity sets will hopefully help me to juggle more and make better use of my time.
      • I also set up a Notebook in OneNote to hold everything: school operations, schedules, contact info, PD planning, SIP planning. It is an amazing program for organizing lots of important information. I also love how I can access it on all my devices.
      • Our board is starting to use Edsby this year. I’m excited to explore how I can use it to better communicate with our school community.
      • For daily note-taking I love the app Day One. My old VP partner shared this one with me and it is fantastic for taking notes on the fly and documenting the issues of the day.
      • I also love Google Apps. My favourite is Google Calendar. Google Docs make collaboration a breeze. Our board uses Office 365 so I tend to use a hybrid of both for different tasks.
      • Managing social media for me and the school can be overwhelming. In the past I’ve used Hootsuite to help manage multiple accounts. Particularly handy is its ability to schedule posts. This year I’ve added TweetDeck to my social media bookmarks to follow chats with other educators.
    • Back to School Operations To-Do Checklist. Every year we go back to school so I’ve tried to streamline my return to work by creating a standard checklist. I’ve attached my excel checklist of things I do (or delegate) prior to Labour Day weekend so you can download and edit it:

      Click here for Principal Start Up Tasks CHECKLIST

    • Consider School Climate Goals. I find it helpful to reflect on the four areas that connect student well-being and student achievement with the lens of: how can I attend to each quadrant within the first couple weeks of school?Student Well-Being and Student Achievement

    I make notes on my intentions for the year.

    This can be a fairly involved process for me. I think about the year in terms of three tiers of learning: Student learning, staff learning, and my learning. How can I best support the needs of some, few, and all?  I try to be as detailed as possible. (I hope to write more about this in a future blog post).

    In terms of my learning, I set clear professional learning goals for the year by:

    • Looking at what problems I want to try and solve. If I could support movement/change in one area this year, what would it be?
    • Developing a theory of action. If I learn about “123”….then “xyz” will…
    • Listing my strategies. How will I engage in the learning? What resources/supports will I need?
    • Deciding on a timeline. When will the learning take place? What are my milestones?
    • Clarifying my metrics. How will I know I’ve learned what I need? How will I measure the impact on staff and student learning?

    Finally, I engage in professional reading.

    Here are some of my favourite resources going into the 2015/16 School Year:

    I hope that this post will be of use to you. I’d love it if you shared your strategies for going back to school in the comment field below!

  • School Leadership

    From High School Vice Principal to Elementary Principal: What I’ve Learned from the Transition So Far

    Pic copyThis is the burning question I’m asked all the time lately: What’s the difference between elementary and high schools?

    I loved being a vice principal at a big high school. After fifteen years of teaching and leadership in high schools I travelled to a strange new world, becoming an acting elementary principal in September 2014.

    Please note: This learning is still ongoing. I haven’t landed on a definitive answer or a bumper sticker to summarize my conclusions. For the most part, the jury is still watching the evidence unfold, waiting to see what happens next in a complex case.

    I love both panels. I feel blessed for the opportunity to experience schooling and education K-12.


    The easy one. I left a high school with a population of 1200 to work in an elementary school with a population of 120. Benefits of a small school are many:

    1. There are no corners to hide in, everyone knows what everyone is up to. Natural accountability.
    2. I can visit classes more frequently. Abundant evidence of learning every day.
    3. I can develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with staff, students, and parents. Greater influence on individuals.
    4. I can spend less time responding to conflict issues and more time facilitating learning issues. Better ongoing focus on school improvement (SIP) priorities.

    My day is still diverse and busy because my team is smaller, so I’m called on to contribute in a more hands-on way. I feel more part of the energy of the school, rather than standing on the sidelines with a big fire hose. I have time to be proactive rather than reactive.

    The people are smaller too. That was the biggest surprise. Children in kindergarten are tiny compared to Grade Nines! Tinier than I thought. And I’ve learned that I need to use different words to communicate with them sometimes. Not necessarily smaller words, but more precise words. I have to think before I speak–of the desired outcome, of the best way to redirect a student, of the bigger picture of how this moment may support his/her growth and development and whole life today and tomorrow and beyond. “Because I said so” doesn’t work.

    In a smaller school with smaller people there is more value placed on supporting the whole student–not just the part of the student who is learning to read. How does this reading moment fit within the greater context of the strategies being taught, the dynamics in the class, the culture in the school, the relationships with staff and students, and the values of the home?

    In an elementary school there are many explicit connections, an unspoken focus on unity, sharing. Staff build many bridges every day to support students moving forward in curriculum and life skills. They take care to create schedules that make sense, to unravel the learning to spark ongoing inquiry, and to fill their rooms with images, words, and books that suit the needs and interests of their students in that year. Individual teachers do this in high schools but my experience is that it’s not a widespread cultural trend within a big school. Is the focus in a big school then on the collective experience rather than the individual experience?

    As the little people move quickly throughout the elementary school building, the learning moves slowly with repetition and multiple entry points. The work that teachers do in their individual classes is valued by students and parents. The daily focus is on the teaching and learning, but most importantly on the individual student and his/her development. In a high school the big people move slowly while the learning moves quickly. The pressure to cover curriculum and “deliver” marks is high. The daily focus may be on the teaching and learning, but I’ve found it’s also on teacher contributions to the whole school through leadership in coaching or clubs or the arts. The work that teachers do outside of their classes is most valued by the community. The undefeated senior soccer coach is more celebrated than the amazing secondary English or Science teacher.

    Treat Day

    This was one of my big fears. High school teachers have heard about “Treat Days,” weekly mini-potlucks where staff bring in treats for each other. With my secondary view it seemed like Treat Day was just one more thing to add to a “To Do” list, an excessive opportunity to show off culinary prowess and spend time we don’t have snacking.

    I was SO wrong.

    Treat Days can be a sign of a vibrant staff who love and respect each other. They are a beautiful way to honour colleagues, to celebrate another week together, and to spend time relaxing and laughing. I am so blessed to be part of a staff who value time spent as a group and who want to do nice things to honour each other.

    Teaching in high schools can be isolating. It can take years to develop strong relationships with staff. Most often, staff divide into small groups and create community for 10-12 teachers. It can be hard to navigate the groups–some even use the word “cliques”. It makes me wonder how we can support high school staff in working together more? Finding ways to get high school staff cultures to a place where a regular whole-staff treat days become a satisfying, anticipated weekly ritual rather than another thing to do (or a dreaded concept).

    Then I wonder about small business vs. big business. How does this relate to the idea of small schools vs. big schools? What are small businesses doing to stay vibrant, to distribute the work so their staff remain energized, to build community? What are big businesses doing to create a sense of belonging, to ensure that each individual feels known and valued, to promote connections and collaboration?

    Learning Culture

    Last week a friend and high school teacher said to me, “Are we done yet?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Like with all this stuff? We’ve been working so hard. Surely we’re done. Have we caught up to elementary?”

    There is a culture of mystery between elementary and secondary systems. Neither really know exactly what the other is doing but the mythology that trails each can be misleading, entrenched in stereotypes.

    We are all in the business of learning so we need to be lead learners whether we work in an elementary school or secondary school. I would hope that our learning is never done. We are not in a field where we can say, “There. I’ve learned assessment. I’m done.” The learning moves and changes with our experience and new connections. Learning cannot be static.

    Four years ago we gave our secondary staff a handout that looked like a puzzle with phrases to describe how to create learning goals. Every year we returned to the same handout and deeply explored a piece of the puzzle. One day in a session a consultant started talking about “clustering expectations” and our jaws dropped. Where was this coming from? Now “they” wanted us to do something new! Will it never end?

    With grace and patience the consultant pointed to our old handout that looked like a puzzle. There, on the top right corner, was the phrase “cluster expectations.” It had been right in front of us for three years and none of us had noticed it–yet. Maybe we weren’t ready. Learning and change takes time. We need to be gentle with ourselves and our leaders.

    One of the biggest gaps I’ve noticed between the two panels is the access to learning opportunities. The staff in my small elementary school participate in regular guided learning. Our small teaching staff of ten teachers are involved in ongoing job-embedded, research-based learning sessions on: Science and Inquiry, Science and Technology, Intentional Interactions (supporting primary students through play-based learning), Fractions, Algebraic Reasoning, Multiplication, and Primary Reading Assessment (using Running Records). And we are blessed to receive the support of a Math Coach twice a week to help build teacher capacity and consultants who regularly visit the school to support our school-based learning sessions.

    If high school teachers had access to diverse learning opportunities then the strategies would seem less fragmented.  It’s hard to put the pieces together when your main source of learning about research-based strategies is on PA Days and staff meetings. To create a stronger learning culture within our secondary schools, a first step could be to create better learning conditions for our secondary teachers.

    My role as principal is far more focused on driving learning culture in an elementary school than it was when I worked as a VP in a secondary school. Since the school is smaller, the staff is smaller, the conflicts are fewer, I have more time to focus my work on learning.

    It comes down to learning conditions. What conditions are needed for learning?

    Click here for a wonderful two-page summary of learning conditions and an opportunity to reflect on your school.

    What are the conditions for learning in your school?

    How can we close the gap between adult learning conditions in elementary learning communities versus secondary learning communities?

    What barriers do teachers face? What barriers do leaders of teacher learning face?

    Maybe the brilliant Steven Katz can help….

    What’s Next?

    As I started writing this post I realized I could probably write a book on this topic! My posts will often show the tensions and harmonies of both panels because I am now of both panels. This year I feel like I have a foot in two worlds and that I am continually reflecting on both in various contexts.

    There are amazing things happening in education in Ontario K-12 and amazing educators in K-12. I’m thrilled to be an educator in this time and this province.