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A (Momentary?) Sigh of Relief – And Time to Consider A School Vision

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.

Somewhere there’s a metaphor for life and highways, climbing out of fog, speed limits, etc. reflected in my life

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.

In this case, our students performed below the provincial average. Is it the unfamiliar word in the question? How can we provide our students with decoding strategies so unfamiliar words don’t stump them?

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!!

So Many Responsibilities, So Little Time

I spent the entirety of last week in a seminar room learning about the ins-and-outs of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, including requirements for workplace inspections, considerations about chemical, electrical, and musculoskeletal disorders, and how to make reports about the same. While the week was long, the learning was valuable. I’m not a huge fan of sitting in meeting rooms for seven-and-a-half hours for five days, (especially five of those in a row), but I know the subject is very important. Under the health and safety regulations, I’m considered an employer, and this means there are significant responsibilities and expectations with regard to the safety of the workers in my school. If I don’t meet these expectations, I could risk financial penalties. More importantly, I could be putting the safety of my staff at risk. It’s a bit of weight on my shoulders, but it’s far from the only thing I’m responsible for at the school.

At some point during the training, (likely while fighting the urge to drift off) I started to consider the numerous responsibilities I have as a principal. Within Regulation 298 – Section 11 of Ontario’s Education Act the Duties of Principals is laid out in clear language – well, as clear as any piece of legislation. The section is broken into nineteen clauses, some with numerous subclauses, and each as important as all the rest. Actually, the document is pretty useful to read; it’s like a list of Success Criteria to ensure that one is doing the job one is paid to do! However, the Education Act language doesn’t always capture the job’s responsibilities.

The Education Act lays it all out

There’s the obvious: I have to drive the instructional program to ensure that students are achieving credits and our measurables, (like graduation rates, provincial test scores, and attendance) are made accountable. There are other responsibilities that carry equal weight: helping students deal with all manners of trauma, investigating instances of fighting and bullying, maintaining communication with parents and the community, or ensuring the Fire and Emergency Plans for the school are updated. Then there are the more obscure duties: ensuring that weekly dairy orders are correct and signed for, regularly updating the guest wifi password, inventorying laptops, or ensuring my weekly schedule is accessible to senior administration. In short, it can all be a bit much, and any unexpected situation can throw a giant wrench into organizing and meeting these expectations.

So how, then, is a principal expected to meet these legal duties? Well, there is a lot of fast walking. (One favourite comment that I overheard an occasional teacher make last year was “he moves really fast for a big guy!”), religious use of online calendars, and the understanding that even at the end of any day, the job is never done, but there’s an acceptance that some duties just need to be put off until the next day.

The other reality is that I also have a family and a life outside of school, so there is forever the challenge of meeting responsibilities and maintaining some semblance of a work/life balance. Totally easy, right? I used to be an Armchair Administrator, in that I found it easy to criticize the job someone else was doing without really understanding the true requirements of the job. Now that I’m here, I am humbled. It’s an awesome job, but the “To Do List” is nuts!

Reflecting on Professional Development Days

In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes that leaders “must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour.” With that in mind, I started my PD Day opening up a can of worms, (complete with a stock graphic of said can of worms projected on the screen behind me). As a new principal, I knew there were burning issues that my staff wanted to discuss. Some were operational, others more controversial. Protocols needed clarification. Decisions needed explanation. It could get ugly. However, in order to proceed with the deep thinking, collaboration, and honest work of the day’s true focus, I opened up the floor: bring on the concerns. Let’s talk about them. Let’s have a real courageous conversation. The hour it took to have that conversation was worth its weight in gold. This, I believe, is how trust is developed. That intentional time cleared the air about so many things. I was honest, I was vulnerable, but when it was done, I think we all felt better.

Sometimes, opening up the can of worms is absolutely important

Professional Development days are an interesting thing. On one hand, educators all want to do better; they most definitely want to positively impact student achievement and well-being. They want to learn better practices, inform their knowledge, and better reach kids. However, on the other hand, there’s so often a dark cloud over PD Days. Educators comment about how “they’d rather be in the classroom,” that they “have so much to do,” or that sticky notes and elbow partners are a waste of time. Why do PD Days have such a bad reputation? What were these professionals, (or professionals in schools across the world) subjected to that tarnished their ability to bring people together to do better for students? It is with that question in mind – and the modelling of people like Sandra Herbst – that influenced how I designed my first PD Day at Marathon High School.

Engaging in the Co-Construction of Success Criteria – Important Work!

I believe that PD Days are a great opportunity to pump people’s tires, to do really good work, to share ideas, and to share ideas and resources with colleagues that they can bring back to their classrooms. The focus for this day was our School Learning Plan for Student Achievement and Well-Being (SLP), a goal-oriented, data-driven cycle that influences measurable student improvements. To seize this great opportunity, I followed my core values of leadership: inclusive voice, creating a positive learning environment, and leading by listening. I also thought carefully about my vision for the SLP. I couldn’t talk at the staff about the most urgent need for the school because I’ve only been here for five weeks. I couldn’t engage them with graphs charting school test scores run against provincial averages, and I most definitely couldn’t dictate “thou shalt blindly follow my vision with minimal input!” I don’t work that way. Instead, I thought about ways that I could get people talking about the things that mattered to them – things that might be an area of focus for the year – and things that connect to ways we can move students forward. We co-constructed success criteria. We engaged in amazing conversations about critical thinking and “thinking classrooms”, (a term from the Critical Thinking Consortium). We talked about our own classrooms and learning spaces, and we ensured there was time to process the complex ideas and discussions from the day, (including over ice cream because snacks are also an important part of PD days!)

At the end of the day, did we change the world? Of course not. But we did engage in some organic, challenging, thoughtful, critical, friendly, collaborative, supportive discourse – and I certainly couldn’t have asked for more. I feel like my staff left with a sense of purpose for the year, a sense of ownership over the School Learning Plan’s direction, and an appreciation for being active parts of the day’s work. Did I change people’s opinions on Professional Development Days? Maybe – maybe just even a little bit – but I’ll take that as a win and I am already excited about how that win can make good things happen at our school.