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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.

The Power of Teams

With three weeks under my belt, I am really starting to get a good feel for the pulse of Marathon High School. There are many, many good things that happen within the walls of this school, but the strength of teamwork really stands out.

It is perhaps cliché that I am choosing to write about teams and teamwork, but the truth is that without the work of many different teams the school would cease to function. For a long time, Ontario’s Ministry of Education has included Promoting Collaborative Learning Cultures as a core capacity within Ontario’s Leadership Framework. From a pedagogical standpoint, it’s hard to argue against the positive impact teamwork has on student achievement and well-being. I could go on-and-on about all of the research available on the topic. There’s even this handy little chart that summarizes all of this, (in case anyone was in disagreement with the obvious)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2019-09-15-at-6.03.42-PM.png
From Ideas Into Action: Promoting Collaborative Learning Cultures. Ontario, 2013.

Instead, I want to write about the more immediate and practical value of teamwork that I have seen in the last three weeks at Marathon High School, like the “Open Gym” every morning and during lunch. A staff member, (usually the Child and Youth Worker but sometimes me) opens the gym and many, many students flood in for pickup basketball, volleyball drills, chin-ups, or just hanging out. The open gym environment provides visible evidence of the supportive, active, and energetic value of teams. Community volunteers sometimes show up to help with these open gyms and other student-centred initiates. It’s truly a thing of beauty. There are also the volunteer members and advisors of the Marathon High School Student Council who braved sheets of stinging rain and torrential winds to barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers for a free Welcome Back lunch. The power of teamwork is alive in our school’s Student Success Team, a roundtable of sorts with the goal of providing interventions and actions to support students at risk. Without the team coming together, it would be far more difficult to provide such individualized support for students.

As a Principal, it might be easy for me to be isolated, but I know that I can count on my team to make sure I’m not alone. The school’s Learning Leads have provided excellent insight into how we might provide instructional leadership for our staff. The federation groups, (including the OSSTF Teacher/Occasional Teacher Branch President), the In-School Staffing Committee, and their district counterparts have also proven to be valuable parts of my team, providing me with insight and a different perspective. Finally, other principals have been instrumental in ensuring that I’m not just aimlessly piecing this job together.

Teamwork is, of course, not automatic. It has to be fostered through good relationships, clear communication, and a whole lot of trust. These things are very, very important to me and my hope is that we have a team that is strong enough to weather even the most challenging of storms.

This week, I will be putting together the base of our School Learning Plan. My plan is to focus on the work of the Critical Thinking Consortium, but this will only be successful if I can get buy-in from the team. That isn’t automatic, either. So, there lies my goal: convincing my team that the work is worthwhile, that it will positively affect student learning and well-being, and that it will strengthen our school. Sounds easy, right?



Reflecting on Week One

The first week has come and gone! The significance of the role – and especially holding the role in my old high school school – has not been lost on me. It’s been a wonderful week in the halls of the school. It has been a week of successes, challenges, tough conversations, long days, many emotions, and constant thinking about my practice. The biggest success has been developing relationships with colleagues and students. I am really trying to further develop a Growth Mindset to paint challenges in a different light – and there have been some big challenges.

I didn’t have a teacher for a number of courses on the first day. This is pretty common at the start of the year but it can still be an organizational nightmare. Luckily, we have some amazing occasional teachers, but the responsibility lies on me for planning and, in certain cases, instruction. However, I took this as a positive. I like planning – and I also love being at the front of a room, (which is largely why I became a teacher in the first place) so I seized the opportunity to drop the administrative responsibilities and head into the classroom. It was awesome! This challenge gave me the opportunity to get to know some students, return to the classroom, and help teachers, so it suddenly became something to celebrate.

The other challenge I faced this week was a bad case of Imposter Syndrome.

Now, I’m sure some people would keep such challenges to themselves, I think it’s important to be honest about our vulnerabilities. Midway through the week, while drowning in an endless number of emails, phone calls, to-do lists, staff issues, and the overwhelming sense that I wasn’t being visible enough in the school, a little voice in my head started to question my own professional competency. I knew what was going on, but it was still tough. Luckily, I have excellent support, (Senior Administrators who provide support, Principal colleagues who provide an ear and ideas, and of course the knowledge that Rome wasn’t built in a day) and I know that the first week(s) aren’t the same as the rest of the year.

While reflecting on challenges is extremely important, I know that I also have to focus on the successes – and there have been some good ones, but as a teacher in the school said to me, “nothing really that great has happened yet. The best days are yet to come.” Of course he is more than right. If the great things have already happened, the 191 school days remaining in the year are going to be long ones!

In the meantime, I am going to rethink how I structure my day to ensure I’m out of my office and in the school meeting kids, supporting staff, and moving people along as often as possible. I will learn which emails and messages demand my immediate attention and which ones can wait. As I get to know the school and its needs, I will apply my vision about individualized, student-centred learning, the fostering of respect, and the importance of relationships to the needs of the school, and have a better sense of direction. It’s only been the first week and I need to remember that.