Welcome to WilsonTeacher.ca. Originally, this site was conceived to provide students and parents with lesson materials and class information. It then evolved into a place for me to share materials with other teachers and share my thoughts on my classes. Although all of the lesson and class material is still accessible, the site now functions as a reflective blog for my journey into school leadership. I look forward to sharing my experiences, reflecting on my practice, and engaging in discussion with others!
You will also find a menu for the various sections of the website. On a mobile device, the menu may be hidden under a menu icon, while on regular devices, the menu is above. Hover over it and it will expand. Check out the different sections.
I vividly remember the morning of Tuesday, September 6, 2005. At 8:45am, around twenty Grade 10 students poured into Room 28 in Geraldton Composite High School. At 8:50am, O Canada played over the intercom, followed by the morning’s announcements. I stood nervously at the front of the room facing the blackboard for a few seconds and I could feel beads of sweat forming over my body. It was the first day of school and the first day of my teaching career. When the announcements were complete, the collective attention in the room focused on me. The stakes of that first day felt high, matched with a very high level of stress. But, I took a breath and started the class. I managed to get through the day despite feeling that cloud of anxiety around me. Now here I am, fifteen years later and in a new role, still dealing with some anxiety-filled days and definitely many days filled with stress. We know the dangers of stress. What we don’t know is the balance between stress as a threat and stress as a motivator.
There are many stressors that I contend with on a daily basis. First-and-foremost is the safety and well-being of my students. This isn’t something that necessarily keeps me up at night, but it’s always in the back of my mind, punctuated with higher-risk activities that I do need to be more concerned about, like outdoor education ice fishing treks, sports trips to different communities on winter highways, planning for an overseas excursion… I need to know all the details, I need to plan for emergencies, and I need to know that at the end of the day, I maintain a level of culpability for everything that happens – and believe me, stress-inducing situations most definitely happen. Yikes.
There are also the stressors of the daily operation of the school, and because these happen at a rapid-fire pace I find that these situations have the ability to quickly overwhelm – often because many of them happen at once. We are in the midst of labour action. The new staff member requires orientation, the parent is calling again requesting answers about an incident in class, there are so many unread-yet-important emails in my inbox, students are roaming the halls, three people called in sick and there are no replacements so I am currently without a secretary in the office, budget planning has to happen, and a student may be expressing suicidal ideations. And this all happened before lunch. Even writing about these examples, (which, by the way, is an account of a recent morning), makes my blood pressure rise.
In many cases, it’s not always as easy as “taking a breath and moving on”, (though this does have its place). There is a pressing urgency to build a toolbox of strategies to get me through stressful days. Ongoing high levels stress is not sustainable and not healthy. According to research from the United States National Institute of Health, chronic stress can alter the structure of the brain, decreasing neuron pathways and negatively affect our immune system (Mariotti, 2015). I know the risks of heart attack and stroke when I’m dealing with chronic stress. I can feel it in my body. I’m (mildly) aware of the body’s release of cortisol to trigger fight-or-flight responses within our primitive brain. I sometimes hear the argument that stress is a motivator, and while I do feel that I work better under pressure and do subscribe to the belief that I operate effectively within the chaos of my job, I am learning more about brain chemistry and the science behind engagement and stimulation that is triggered by more “positive” encounters with stress. (I highly recommend Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain as an accessible starting point for this science from the perspective of oppressed students.) When I reflect on how I deal with stress, a growing concern is how I might minimize the effects of stress on my body when I chalk everything up to “being motivated to work harder and work better.”
So what’s in my toolbox? Honestly, sometimes it’s pretty empty. I try to remember that I cannot solve all problems, (and am certainly not expected to, either), that organization is paramount and procrastination the devil, that being a “yes person” is a dangerous flaw, and most important, that it’s important to talk when stress builds up. My toolbox also includes an amazing school team and over the past six months I feel that the work I’ve done building relationships is paying dividends. Our staff does a good job of checking on one another, (including checking on me), and this is probably the best tool around. As a school leader, I know I can delegate tasks as appropriate to my colleagues because of their professional knowledge and abilities. Although I lead a single-administrator school it is far from a one-man-show. There is also the value in workplace laughs, conversations with students that remind me why I became an educator, celebrating all of the awesomeness that happens in my school on social media, learning to leave work at a consistent time, (and actually leave it!), and finding solace in nature. These are all important deposits into my emotional well-being bank account.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that I’m nearing a stress-induced burnout, or that I’m living in fear of a heart attack, (actually, my Apple Watch-created ECG above looks pretty normal). Instead, I want to express that I’m aware of the impact of stress – and you should be aware of your stress levels, too. If I’m aware of the stress and managing it with the aforementioned tools, then I’m a better school leader and a better person.
Now, time for a walk outside so I can take a breath or two.
The end of Semester One is rapidly approaching, and this is an opportune time to reflect on the successes and challenges that I’ve encountered as a new administrator over the past five months. I still start each morning by walking through the front doors of the school in a bit of a state of disbelief. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be where I am. I try to be here at 7:30am – before most staff have entered the school – and this gives me an opportunity to walk the halls and think about the day. This deep-thinking and planning time allows me to put myself in a state of readiness and effectiveness and I think it’s critical to making each day a good day. But I still shake my head thinking that it was not all that long ago when I was walking the same halls as a student. I often flash back to my own high school memories and honestly, it can be a strange mix of emotions.
Much of my focus this semester has been on developing relationships with staff and students. I am very appreciative of these relationships and I truly value them. They get me through some challenging situations. Relationships are built on trust, and it will take time to both create and maintain trust that hopefully extends to everyone in the school. I was talking with my brother, who is a manager at Ontario Parks, and we were reflecting on the fact that as leaders, the best approach is to be open, honest, and communicative – and this goes a long way in helping those relationships grow. I try to do that every day as a leader – with a mix of my sense of humour and personality – and I hope that people will come to value and appreciate my leadership style. I have a huge sense of pride for my school, both as principal and as an alumni. It is incredible watching students succeed – and there have been many successes: our school athletic teams have competed provincially. Our school is sending a team to the provincial Cardboard Boat Races, (a STEM initiative that is very, very cool). We have students currently applying for post-secondary, students who are finalists for major awards, and students who are finding themselves and planning for their futures. It takes time to get to know students – and it’s particularly frustrating for me that it’s taking longer than anticipated to know all of their names – but students are what make this place exist and I’m lucky that all of my students are awesome. Seriously.
One of the other successes that I reflect on is my ability to open my office – or the floor in staff meetings – to challenging conversations. There have been a few times so far this year where I have had to make difficult decisions. Inevitably, not everyone agrees with the results of these decisions, but I think it’s extremely important to establish conditions where we can talk openly and honestly about where the decision came from – and why. So far, this has worked well and I appreciate that people have been comfortable and trusting enough to approach me candidly. This is one of the Core Capacities of Ontario’s Leadership Framework that I value the most. It ties into relationship-building, it allows me to know people’s interests, passions, expertise, and experience, and it fosters a sense of teamwork.
I’ve also had the opportunity to visit all classes within the school and this has led to some amazing conversations about instructional leadership. One key role of a school principal is to oversee and develop the instructional program. For a person who has never taught many of the subjects that we offer, this can be incredibly challenging. However, there are some universal truths, (I believe), to success in any classroom including management strategies, communication, engagement, differentiated instruction, effective planning, use of inquiry, inclusion, etc. etc. etc. and it has been awesome to sit down and listen to teachers talk about their program while also allowing me to offer my own perspective/ideas/experience in a positive, supportive manner. I will be engaging in my first round of Teacher Performance Appraisals soon, and the groundwork to make these successful has already been laid through these visits and conversations. I will not profess to be an expert of every subject, but I can confidently share my knowledge and experience about these universal topics to help create classrooms where both educators and students can thrive.
Finally, the last reflection is a comment about the challenge of this school year. This year has been a different year for education in Ontario. As a new principal, I am learning to navigate and balance the politics of education with the need to manage the school. For ten years I was actively engaged in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation as a district and provincial leader. When I made the decision to enter school administration, it also meant leaving the union and stepping away from the work that I valued. However, my involvement with the union provided me with amazing opportunities and experience which I am now able to bring with me every day. It has also afforded me a level of understanding and respect for the various job classes that exist within my school. As educator federations engage in various levels of job action, it is a strange feeling to be on the other side of the fence. While we share many of the same values and goals, my role is different and it is taking some time to digest the changes. I will circle back to my first point about relationships, though: strong, meaningful relationships help to weather challenges. While roles change, we are all working to make this school awesome.
As I work through this first year, I’m also further developing my vision for the school. This vision will be an important part of my Problem of Practice/Professional Growth Plan but first I need to build those relationships, establish that trust, and know my school. I’m getting there, but I think I need to finish the first year and really think about what that vision might be. Relationships between the school and community? Equitable education for all students? A 100% graudation rate? The school as a community hub? All of the above!?!?
I have rambled on far enough, but I will end by encouraging you to reflect on your own visions for what you do this year. What has worked? What can you improve on? How can you foster and develop relationships within your life?
The first two months of the school year are chaotic – especially when those two months are the first two months in a new role. While I am grateful for all of the support I have, (both from my board’s leadership and my own school staff), the reality is that this time is extraordinarily demanding. Now that relationships are established with those connected with my school, deadlines have been met, and a good system is in place to govern the weekly operation of Marathon High School, I can finally catch my breath.
That’s not to suggest that I can rest on my laurels – but I can at least digest and process everything that happened during September and October and plan for the remainder of the semester and school year, (and beyond). I often think how different next year will be as I record notes about things to take care of over the summer, (like Bully Prevention Plans, for example). My experiences this year will make next year a little easier.
During this every so slightly quieter time, my priority is really honing in on my personal vision for Marathon High School. My staff and I have spent time in our professional learning communities identifying our area of greatest need and this has lead to some really good conversations. Through the work we’ve engaged in during Professional Activity we have been able to focus our thinking. Doing this work as a new principal is definitely putting the cart before the horse, especially with the deadlines that come so early in the school year. After considering the direction of our board, (using critical thinking and thinking classrooms, combined with rethinking assessment and evaluation), this is what we came up with:
This goal does two things: first, it expresses that we are, as a school, going to do some focused work in an attempt to drive student learning forward. Second, it does so in an eloquent form of buzzword and edu-babble. Ok, so a timeline was met, but what does any of that mean? How does it tie into my vision for the school!?
As I take advantage of this somewhat quiet time, I’m able to really think about and refocus the goal of our school plan to meet the needs of our students. As the horse gets ahead of the cart and I have time to sift through our data, (and there is so much data) I can do a better job of identifying our needs. There are two pieces of data that I really stopped to look at:
EQAO Literacy Test Data: This data tells me that our students have work to do in order to score at or above provincial expectations. The data suggests our students need work on finding and expressing implicit ideas, grammar, and familiarity with multiple choice questions. A wonderful part of this data is we can focus on individual students and how they performed on the test. This allows us to identify very specific strategies to meet student needs.
Tell Them From Me Data: This is a survey students answer that provides an insight into student well-being. It includes areas on student engagement, mental health, anxiety, a sense of belonging, and how students value school – among other things. This data is presented in aggregate form by grade, (since the information is pretty personal), but it allows us to really focus on a group of students with the highest needs in areas of well-being. The data suggests we have students dealing with higher-than-average levels of anxiety. What steps can we take to help students become resilient when anxiety becomes a barrier to academic achievement?
So as I considered these two areas, I thought how our staff could come together to connect these two needs. Literacy is important because it unites all subject areas, so all educators in the building have a vested interested in building literate students. Well-being is equally important, and by including this data into our work, I am able to connect everyone in the building with my vision and our school learning plan. All staff in the building – regardless of role – are working to create a positive, nurturing, and supportive environment for our students. I feel like this is a plan we can all get behind, and it’s a plan that is driven by accessible, personalized data. It’s also a step towards my vision of creating a school that is a hub for students (and the community) to access resources that allow anyone to succeed academically and personally. I’m excited! Thank goodness for a bit of time to do some deep thinking!!