Co-Learning and Hierarchy: Mutually exclusive?


Co-learning: when a group of people comes together in a spirit of inquiry to share knowledge, investigate possibilities and learn from each other. (From Edward Brantmeier article)

Characteristics of Co-learning:
*  All knowledge is valued
*  Reciprocal value of knowledge sharers
*  Care for each other as people and co-learners
*  Trust
*  Learning from one another

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

I had a wonderful opportunity during our September professional activity day. I got to sit with both elementary and secondary staff to talk about student learning needs evident in student work and what educators need to learn in order to meet those needs. Talking with people about ideas is my favourite part of the job, and these discussions were passionate and student centred.

In each school, the educators obviously care deeply about their students. They were wrestling with big ideas like integration of technology into critical literacy, problem solving, how to balance classroom management with a focus on higher order thinking skills. I loved the discussion.

At first, I flattered myself that I was co-learning. Wasn’t I open to listening, being trustworthy and valuing the knowledge of all participants? Well, yes, at least in my mind. Then I had two important conversations. The first was with a principal who shared that maybe my presence hadn’t been viewed as positively by staff as I’d hoped. In my eagerness to be transparent, I had highlighted that even though I was a superintendent, I was there to learn. But perhaps that just drew attention to my position and made people uncomfortable. When I spoke in a group, my words carried more weight than others and some felt criticized. Not the trusting atmosphere I was seeking! It was a setback.

The second conversation was with Steven Katz, a thinker, professor and researcher at OISE who works with our district. During a principal learning team meeting, he talked about hierarchy and how naive it is to pretend that it doesn’t exist in a learning session. When a superintendent sits down with principals or teachers, hierarchy exists because of the evaluative component. Announcing that I’m a co-learner and expecting that reality to disappear is naïve at best.

Honestly, I could kick myself! I know that. I have felt it in sessions as a teacher, a vice principal, a principal and now as a superintendent, with my boss. I’ve done lots of reading about trust over the past couple of years, so I understand how it is earned and builds over time through a combination of character and competence. (Steven M. R. Covey)

For a time, I felt a bit stuck. Then I realized that I have to go back to my core beliefs about learning and our work.

Co-learning can happen, even with the spectre of hierarchy at the table.  I’ve experienced it as a principal and a superintendent, after people come to know me better and when I leave my ego at the door. I need time with the schools where I work. I need to accept that the hierarchy exists, acknowledge it, and get on with the work. I also want to clarify my purpose in sitting at the table with other educators. It is three fold:

1) To hear and reflect on their ideas and insights;

2) To interrupt group think and established patterns of thinking; (see Intentional Interruption by Katz and Dack)

3) To interrupt my own thinking so I can truly learn.

I’m ready to get back in there.

Where Everyone Knows Your Name


Way back near the beginning of my teaching career, I worked at a middle school with a teacher who was in his last few years of education.  He called every girl in his classes “Susie”, and every boy, “George”. Yup. True story. (There were some exceptions for those students who stood out, either for good or bad reasons.)Hand Names

At the time, I laughed a little about it, but I also couldn’t get over how disrespectful it was. That was not a teacher who knew his students.

Fortunately, that is not true for the vast majority of teachers out there. They learn every student’s name by the end of the first week of school. When I talk with educators, not only can I see how much they care about their students, but also how much they know about them.  Educators carry a tremendous amount of information about their students in their head. They glean it from classroom and hallway observations, conversations and student work. As a teacher, I learned to take my class lists and go through each name one by one, reflecting on what I knew about them. If I came to a name that stumped me a little, I made a mental note to talk with that student, to spend time in class with them, and to really examine their work to find out their strengths and needs. It was a great strategy that I have transferred to my current role.

Our district‘s Strategic Directions use Knowing Our Students, Knowing Our Staff and Knowing Our Parents/Community as foundational pieces for the work we do. We can only teach better, learn better and serve better when we know more about them.

It’s really important for me to know the principals and vice principals I work with. As Steven Katz would say, they are my “class”. First, if I see someone at a meeting who I don’t recognize, I like to go right up and introduce myself. It’s bold, but also a wonderful way to learn names. I also start from an asset not a deficit lens and try to listen carefully to what they say, noting both verbal and nonverbal messages. I reflect on my school visits and conversations with them. I want to celebrate their successes and support them with challenges. This is definitely a work in progress since I always have room for improvement.

How do you get to to know your students, your staff or your parents/community better? Let’s share strategies!

First Day = Best Day


The first day of school is the best day of the year. Every September holds the promise of hopes and dreams of students, families and staff. Students arrive ready to learn, probably more than any other day. It’s the day to connect with them, have fun, and help kids feel successful so they look forward to the second day. Let’s face it, while the syllabus and notebooks are important, they are not the most scintillating topics for the first day. They can wait.  happy-first-day-of-school-1

Sam Barringer, a student in our district, spoke eloquently at our opening breakfast event about the need for connections between students and teachers to engender motivation and engagement (he calls it e = mc2).  The first day is the best day for making those connections and jump starting the process for really knowing your students’ hope and dreams.

I have a great suggestion for first day = best day activities.  The maker movement in education is sweeping North America. The premise is that students use lots of 21st century skills when they make, including creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. To be honest, it reminds me of being a kid and having my mom teach me how to knit or cook. Or planting a garden with my dad. Or making scrapbook pages with a friend. Nowadays, these things are still great. But we have even more options that can happen in school. A low tech option is the Marshmallow Challenge.  Videos are within the reach of every student with fun apps like VideoStar and iMovie. You can go even further with 3D printing. Tinkering, inventing and making stuff can be powerful learning and super fun.

Last week, I noticed tweets from Pam Moran, a superintendent in Virginia. She was tweeting photos of first day activities at Monticello High School in her district. That led me to the principal, Dr. Jesse Turner who was proudly showing off a duct tape bow tie made for him by students.

These photos show that this isn’t hard. And look at the expressions on student faces. I know every educator wants to create those smiles every single student who walks through your doors.

What can you do to make sure the first day of school really is the best day? Please share your stories!