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.

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?