Practicing what I preach

It was time for a change. I have been working as a Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for five years and, in that time, have become comfortable with the many facets of my role (staff developer, instructional leader, learning supports designer, cheerleader, professional listener, evangelist, everything-related-to-learning coordinator). Nevertheless, as a collective leadership team, we knew it was time for a change and now, as the wheels begin to turn on this “restructuring,” I find myself needing to reflect on what this has meant for me already and what it will mean as we continue to walk in this new direction.

As I have articulated in many past posts, we have been working for five years on developing and supporting a common understanding and language around learning as it relates to renewed curricula, shifting assessment practices, responsive instructional design, planning using UbD and formal, data-focused reflection. The professional development we have undertaken with all staff in our division is immense. But, as we move into our sixth year and also, as we move into a new provincial sector plan, we began to see that it might be time to move from whole-group instruction (so-to-speak) to targeted supports. For this reason, I am shifting from working with 21 schools to working in one of three pods, with a much more focused seven schools. My fellow coordinator of early learning and my new coordinator colleague in student support services will also have pods and, along with our two superintendents, we will share understanding, assess needs and construct supports and responses for our schools, based on information we glean from a wide variety of sources.

So what does this mean for me, personally (I ask myself)? Well, I will need to learn a lot! I will have to build a greater understanding of both the early learning and support services portfolios. We will continue to have our specializations but we will also need to share understanding across all areas in order to work with our assigned schools. I was well on my way in understanding the connections between our work but had done so with broad brush strokes. I will now need to examine the finer details. In fact, my title is changing to Coordinator of Learning (which I share with my other coordinator colleagues).

I am also now working with staff through professional growth plans, observations and conversations. This is an expanded role. I have always worked with our support personnel within a leadership team, but again, next year will require a much more intensive relationship as I work with them to specifically develop their professional growth plans and support them in their important work.

I will be much more immersed in my assigned schools. This year, I worked very hard to visit all 21 schools as often as I could, but found myself spread too thin and my supports were often not as robust as I would have liked. The focus to seven schools will change my work significantly. Couple this with a shift to far less whole group professional development, and I will be able to work alongside others in a more meaningful and targeted way. My assigned schools are at least an hour away, so this will also mean more travel. In fact, my pod team will be located in a town an hour from my office.

This is just a lightly painted picture of, what I think, are significant changes to my work. So, how am I feeling about this change? Well, I believe I am feeling much the same way others feel when changes occur in their work – excited, nervous, scared, unsure, motivated, curious. I am very used to defining my own job. Sharing my job description with two other people is new to me – the last time I shared the same role as others was when I was a classroom teacher. Co-constructing a role will be interesting. I am also very accustomed to being confident in most aspects of my work. At the moment, I am confident I can do good things but less-confident in all aspects of understanding that this new role will require. This is very good for me but it has been a while since I have not felt sure of how things would “roll out.” I am committed to being the best leader I can be for my pod team but I know I have to spend much time listening and learning as part of that leadership. I will have to become more comfortable in saying “I am not sure” and “let’s try this and see what happens.” I am excited about spending more time talking about specific students and their learning. I am equally as excited to engage in my own learning, which is already happening. I think this new understanding will only make me and the work I do better.

Change is scary and exciting all wrapped up in one package. I am no stranger to change but this one feels new to me. I have learned that the more new something feels, the more opportunity it provides me to grow and adapt and become better at what I do. I look forward to travelling a new path.

Identity and the work we do: Part 1

You know, if I really think about this identity business, it occurs to me that I haven’t thought enough about it at all. My brain worries back into the past and propels forward into the future. I go back and try to recall where my identity started at the beginning of this year, or at the beginning of last year. I look ahead to where it is going. Identity is such a wisp of a thing; a shadow; an illusion. I am shaped everyday, if only slightly. The only things that are rooted at my core are my experiences so far and the lessons they have taught me. I hang onto them , hoping they will help me predict and function and cope. But even those experiences, when examined under a microscope, are filled with moving, complex bits, We are only our moment, our now. Anything can happen. (Personal journal, 2008)

Over the two decades (or so) of my career, there have been times when I have come face-to-face with myself and I could not ignore what I saw. Over the years, these moments of stopping and staring into my own heart have always invited me to discover new things hiding there. My career has been a  transformative journey of change and growth. My moments of revelation have been elusive at times, because I often need to share a space with another person or find myself in a completely new situation before I can see myself. By living through these experiences and then telling and retelling (Clandinin and Connelly, 1994) these meaningful, joyful and startling “spotlight” moments, I can discover parts of myself that have changed, melted and adjusted over time. These moments have become mirrors to greater understanding of what is most important to me in my work and in my relationships. I have discovered that if I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge which can, in turn, help me to be more effective in the work I do everyday. The trick is to be willing to stop, without judgement, and examine what is resting within me.

I have learned to recognize the time to pause and reflect by first identifying a visceral response I am having – it is in moments of my greatest discomfort, unrest and insecurity that I know it is time to have a look, because it is these moments that signify that my identity is facing some changes. It continues to take a great deal of practice and fortitude, but if I can remember to take the time I need to consider the origin of my discomfort within me, I have the opportunity to reinvent myself just a little. The Buddhists call this the “in between spaces” and I remind myself to welcome them because it means I am ready to learn something.

Crocus 18-17

Making Connections: Te Kotahitanga and Engaging Maori Students in Education

There is something exciting about attending professional learning opportunities these days. I have such a strong sense of purpose in my work, both within my division and provincially, that every chance I get to listen to the perspectives of others means adding another layer of depth and understanding to the work I already share with my colleagues in my own school division. This past Friday was no exception and I am going to try to capture, summarize and synthesize some of the larger lessons that are currently making their presence felt inside my head.

It was with great interest that I attended a particular learning opportunity at the University of Saskatchewan. Two representatives from the Te Kotahitanga program in New Zealand were sharing their successes in developing a comprehensive education program that ensures equitable opportunities and success for all students, including Maori students. Prior to their work in New Zealand, Maori students were experiencing educational challenges similar to Aboriginal students in Saskatchewan. Graduation rates were lower, suspensions were higher and overall feelings of connection and acceptance were dismal for this group of students. After listening to Dr. Berryman and Ms. Barrett, I took away some valuable insights which could be applied to Saskatchewan education:

  • This work in New Zealand began with discussions between researchers and both engaged Maori students and non-engaged Maori students. Both groups were essential to speak with, in order to have a robust understanding of the issues facing these groups in the educational system. The non-engaged students and their families were asked what it would take to engage students in education. The responses from all these groups fell into three categories: 1) Changes needed to be addressed for the child, within their home and their community 2) Changes needed to be addressed in the school’s structure and systems 3) Changes needed to be addresses with regard to in-class relationships, interactions and pedagogy. It is not that the existing pedagogy wasn’t working – it just wasn’t working for Maori students (this is an important distinction). When Maori students, families and their teachers were asked which factors impacted student engagement the most, teachers chose factors relating to the child and Maori students and their families chose in-class relationships, interactions and pedagogy. This was an interesting disparity.
  • Discussion with all partners began with a rejection of Deficit Theorizing. Everyone was encouraged to focus on factors that they had the agency to change. This reminded me of Stephen Covey’s work around Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern. The main assertion is that all of us have the agency to change some things and when we focus on things we do not have control over, we reduce or stifle opportunities that await us and our students. It seems really common sense but I know that this is what often stalls schools in their desire to address change. When we throw our hands up and say, “Yeah, but do you know how bad this student’s home life is?” or “Yeah, but this student hates being here and you can’t make a kid learn,” then we are saying there is nothing we can do and this is, in fact, not true at all.
  • The presenters asserted that there were some myths that had to be clarified. Firstly, it is a myth that Aboriginal students don’t know who they are. Secondly, it is a myth that only Aboriginal teachers can teach Aboriginal students effectively.
  • An effective teaching profile was shared (so effective, that the gap between Maori students and non-Maori students has almost disappeared in the schools involved in Te-Kotahitanga): 1) Effective teachers are culturally appropriate and responsive (not just tokenism). They create a space where students can talk about what it means to be who they are. They create spaces where students are allowed time to make connections. Culture is always evolving (the past and the present) and this is discussed and shared. Everyone can talk about their understanding of their culture and how it is applied every day in their lives. 2) They reject Deficit Theorizing. 3) They are committed to change and are helped to bring about change. They have the desire and the support to make changes to their pedagogy, interactions and relationships.
  • There were six elements to education in these schools: 1) Culture was respected 2) Expectations were high 3) The learning environment was secure and well-managed 4) There were effective teaching interactions 5) Strategies were explicitly used to promote change 6) Evidence was collected, reflected on and responsive instruction occured based on this evidence. This was good news, because this is exactly what we are working toward in our division!
  • There were originally differing ways Maori viewed problems versus how the education system viewed problems. Maori first explored who was at the centre of the issue. Then why, how and what to do followed. The system tended to work the other way around – What is the problem and what can we do? Next came why and how. Who came last. This was a significant difference in worldview and clarified some things for me about how systems approach change versus how other groups may approach change.
  • The presenters stressed the importance of Aboriginal students achieving and enjoying success as Aboriginal students. We have to strive for ways to invite children to be who they are and be successful. The “engaged” Maori students stated that they felt they had to leave themselves at the door in order to be successful in school. This is not what I want for students.

The day was rounded out with many cultural demonstrations and I felt privileged to be in the crowd and to be able to experience diverse perspectives, traditions and beliefs all day. Once again, I am a better person for having experienced this day!


When leading means pulling back

I remember a job interview a number of years ago, when I was asked what I considered to be my weaknesses. I had prepared for this question, intent on following the advice that in these situations, you must present your weaknesses so they actually end up sounding like strengths: I am too committed to work, I over-communicate, I over-prepare for interviews and end up making my responses sound like they could come from anyone…things like that.In reality, I actually do believe that my strengths are my weaknesses. As with most things, when there is too much of a good thing, it can become a not-so-good thing.

I have been reminded of this point this week as my colleagues and I linger on strategic planning for next year. This is my fourth year in this position and each year, we adjust our approach to strategic planning so we can continuously improve as a school division. As a result, we have accomplished some amazing things. As always, we begin by looking at Ministry expectations and Board goals and blend these with data we have collected about student performance, teacher perception and family engagement. We then develop strategies to address areas where we need to grow and begin the work of deciding how to communicate these strategies to the field. This is all good work – rewarding, exciting and filled with promise. Yet, this is the point when my strength becomes my weakness if I am not careful (and sometimes I am not).

As I have said in previous posts, I love my job. As a Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, I am right in the middle of all the things I care about – learning, students, teachers, possibility! I am also pretty good at my job – I am creative and communicate well. I work very quickly and enthusiastically and churn out documents, PD plans and supports like there is no tomorrow. I work more hours than required because I find so many pieces of my role fascinating. So, I have ideas – lots of them. But I very easily slip into over- efficiency and I look inward for too long, without pausing to consider the people around me at a deep enough level. I imagine this is true for many passionate people in our world. We work and work and work and, only every so often, we stop to look up. That is when we see others around us looking flustered and irritated and we wonder why.

Last week, our team decided to phone administrators in our school division to do a little “temperature check.” We wanted suggestions for how to improve the way we share next year’s plan at our May administrative council meeting. We sensed administrators were feeling over-whelmed. My Early Learning colleague and I phoned every single principal, and it was the best thing we have done in a long time. It was humbling for us, a welcome chance to talk about leadership for them and very informative to our team as we move forward.

As we were sharing the synthesized version of our calls with the team, it suddenly occurred to me that my own strengths may have become a weakness. My efficiency and creativity had, perhaps, become too much for the people around me. Now, I do not claim responsibility for everything that happens in our division. I am also not claiming that I have grievously injured anyone – I don’t think I have. I am simply owning my own part of a larger leadership challenge – moving too quickly. In fact, it is because I share this same strength/ weakness with the people with whom I work that this has become something worth thinking about. We are all efficient. We are all passionate. We all have great ideas. But, in the end, all those plans often get filtered through one person – the in-school administrator. And it is a delicate balance between providing a vision that is empowering and providing a vision that prevents the vision of others to have a place.

This is a delicate topic, and so I do not make any grand statements about systems and what they should and shouldn’t do. I am also not critical of anyone in my own system – I am so lucky to work with such amazing, diverse and committed individuals. Our team is fantastic, the administrators are so skilled and compassionate. Our teachers work incredibly hard for our equally amazing students. But when I stand back and look at myself (which is all I can really do), I have to remind myself that some of my great ideas may have to sit for a while. I have to remind myself that the great ideas we have already set in motion are still great and deserve time and energy in order to nurture the great-ness. I have to remind myself to slow down. Because the fact of the matter is, that when a person is in a leadership role, the work they do is not about them; the work they do is about the people who surround them. And if we spend too much time checking off our own lists, thinking about our own passions and our need to feel fulfilled, without looking around us, we run the risk of forgetting why we are here in the first place.

There are some non-negotiables for me – students are the centre of my field of vision…always. I will never release this committment to student learning. However, I have to remind myself that there are ways to support all the people working with students everyday and there are ways to leave them feeling a little abandoned. I am committed to support. This week was a good “reset” for me (and for those who are impacted by my work.)




Thoughts on “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”

I consider myself a leader. I understand that my role as a Coordinator makes that the case, but being a leader, for me,  comes down to much more than a job title. I remember the exact time I decided to embrace my “need to lead” and it was a difficult decision. I had been asked to consider a Vice Principalship at a middle and secondary school. As had occurred in the past, I felt tangible excitement at the idea, but I had, until that point, supressed the excitement in order to work part time and maintain my perceived formula for work-family balance. Whenever I considered leadership, I recognized that it would require a commitment of both time and energy and I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough of either. I had two children, a marriage and a home to devote time and energy to and I worried that I would be doing an ‘unmotherly’ or ‘uncaring’ thing by deciding to explore the idea of leadership in my career. In the end, though, I took the leap and accepted the position and I haven’t looked back. However, making the decision, didn’t make things easier. As I have explored leadership as a Differentiated Instruction Facilitator, a Vice Principal, a Principal and now a Coordinator, I have had few women to look to for guidance and support (but the ones I did find are simply gems). Education is filled with women but, where I work, far fewer women can be found in leadership roles.

Last week, I read Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I had listened to and enjoyed her TedTalk and was hoping for some more insight into women and leadership and why it seems to be so hard sometimes. She delivered on insight and, in many ways, it was a real relief to read about my own personal struggles with leadership in such a large scale place like this book. It helped me to recognize the challenges that women face in reaching and sustaining leadership roles in the workplace. One of the most interesting aspects of these challenges is that more than a few of them come from inside women, themselves. I recognize my own hestitancy to lean in at times and this book helped to clarify why this is so.

Here are some of the points from the book that resonated for me:

  • It is normal to feel conflicted about leaning in to work because society places a great deal of emphasis on the role of women to “manage” the home. This is unfair to both women and men, since there is nothing wrong (in fact, it is essential for women who choose to work full time) with sharing responsibilities at home or even (can you imagine?) inviting men to shoulder more than half of the load, if they choose.
  • In the years when we are building our families, women often lean back, when they could lean in. In fact, Sheryl contends that it is better to strive for and obtain positions that are challenging and fulfilling at work because those are the roles that keep us in the workplace. Women sell themselves short by not engaing in jobs that are challenging and fulfilling, which can often lead to further reduction in work time, in order to search for fulfillment in other ways.
  • Women are perceived by both men and other women in a more negative light when they express leadership qualities (strength, ambition, decisiveness). Men are valued for the same qualities that women are criticized for and this makes leadership difficult sometimes. Women, above all, should be nurturing and so when they decide to work full time and lead as part of this work, this is percevied as undesireable.
  • Men mentor men. Women have greater difficulty finding mentors because there are fewer women in leadership roles. This perpetuates the cycle because without mentors and sponsors, it is challenging for women to advance within their organization. There are also perceived complications with men mentoring women, that we have to “get over” in order to solve this dilemma.
  • We cannot do it all. We just can’t. Media perpetuates a myth that leads to feelings of failure for women and men. I struggle with this every single day and, while I know my hope for doing it all is not realistic, I continue to buy in to the myth that if I just work hard enough and manage my time well enough, I can be the perfect wife, mother, worker, housecleaner, cook, volunteer…well, you see what I mean.
  • Life on the home front has to be 50-50 if both partners work full time. I have a fantastic partner and this has been demonstrated time and again. I, personally, could not do what I do without the partner I have. Period. And I more than acknowledge how challenging things must be for single parents.
  • We have to start talking about gender again. I don’t know how and, while Sheryl gives some suggestions, I have to think about this a great deal more. This book applies to me but it is written for millions of women (and men!) Each of us has to figure out what we want and how we will navigate the waters of our own oceans. But it cannot be denied that women are not yet represented enough in leadership roles and, both Sheryl and I would contend, that the world would be better off if this were to happen.

A little more of less

Last summer, I walked alongside my Dad as he moved through the final stage of his life. Anyone who has travelled a similar path knows how challenging this is and how it resets your view of life. During that period and since his passing, I have thought a lot about my own life and what my new understanding means for the choices I make as I move forward.

My long-standing identity is riddled with descriptors: passionate, driven, curious, intelligent. These are the attributes that I have valued and, therefore, cling to with amazing strength. But I have considered that every attribute has a partner: emotional, self-absorbed, unempathetic, arrogant. I think people are made up of both sides of any quality and the trick is to try to lean in one direction more than the other. We have to constantly stir reflection into the mix. We have to look outward and inward to consider the consequences of decisions we make in the name of “Who we are.”

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, I work in a profession undergoing monumental change. I feel pressure everyday to be all those good qualities I mentioned, in the name of helping children experience the best of themselves. I have blogged about this aspect of my work many times already. And I take a great deal of comfort knowing that when I am in the final stage of my own life, I can look back and say that there was never any doubt that I devoted much time and energy to something I believed in and cared about.

However, just like there are two sides to the qualities we hold, there are two sides to devoting ones’ life to a particular lifestyle. This is what I have been really thinking about because I see myself reflected back to me in the faces of people I talk to every day. Many people I know WORK. They pour themselves into their jobs. And when they are done, they pour themselves into their schedules. I, too, rush from thing to thing sometimes. And let’s face it -our society values this approach to work and life. I, too, have been seduced by this belief that the more we do, the harder we work, the bigger our lives are, the better we are. I have spent time and energy living by this belief and showing others that it was so. I see it all around me.

The thing is, it doesn’t work for me. It makes me unhealthy. It makes me unhappy. Because as I sat beside my Dad day after day, I realized that “driver behaviour” doesn’t matter in the end. No one is measuring our value by those criteria. No one is benefitting from continuous lists, and more being done. My children don’t benefit from being rushed all the time. I am worse in my job when I push without thinking. If it doesn’t help me and doesn’t benefit anyone else, why do it? Who am I living for anyway?

So, I am slowing down. Most importantly, I am slowing down without guilt (a work in progress). Because more isn’t better for me and my family. Because I can be great at my job and not give it my soul. Because I am better when life is slower. I feel things more deeply. I listen. I feel. I think our world might need a little more of less.