Making My Learning Visible

Every day I ask staff members to think, learn and reflect. As John Spencer, teacher blogger extraordinaire (@johntspencer) reminds us, being in a classroom is a tough, demanding job. It’s easy to forget that when you leave the classroom. I can talk about program and assessment in a session or from the safety of my “big principal desk”, but the reality of teaching 25 to 30 young, active and eager minds is something else. So when I ask faculty in our building to think, to learn and to reflect on their instructional practice, I need to always be aware of just how difficult teaching is.

One way I can do that is to make my own vulnerabilities and challenges as a learner visible for all the people I work with. Steven Katz , Canadian professor and educator, stresses the importance of showing that it is OK to identify challenges and weaknesses, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As students need that model and permission, so do teachers, educational assistants and early childhood educators.

In October, we held our first staff learning session. Our focus was to be a discussion and exploration of teachers’ problems of practice as they related to instructional practice. After examining perceptual data provided by teachers, we asked: “What is pressing and urgent in your classroom in terms of creating the conditions for student learning?”

To set the stage, I shared the results from a leadership qualities survey I asked staff to complete anonymously last June. (See previous post: Feedback, Priceless). This was not easy, partly because not all comments were positive, but also because this is intensely personal work.  Next, I shared my reflections about the feedback and what I wanted to focus on in my learning.  I accepted that I hadn’t done the best job in some areas of my school leadership. I accepted what the results were telling me. I admitted that I didn’t really know what to do next, but I was dedicated to finding out how to tackle the problem. I identified some next steps. Finally, I committed to telling staff about my progress in the future.

Reactions?  People were interested.  When I was honest about what I needed to learn, it opened the door for them to admit their own vulnerabilities. We can’t learn unless we admit our mistakes and work together to learn how to do things better. Our learning session was full of rich discussions about beliefs and teaching. I am really looking forward to the next session where we can continue the conversation.

How can you make your learning visible?

Canadian Experience?

Canada officially welcomes newcomers. At Canadian immigration offices around the world, we tell people their gifts, talents, training will be valued and respected when they arrive on our shores. Every week, our school registers newcomer families.

School councils in Ontario have an essential role in advising school staff and bringing parent, student, family and community voice to the forefront. Our school council is made up of parents who care deeply about the education of their children. They came to Canada for their children, but also in hope that they can contribute to our shared society. We have the benefit of the thinking and experience of a physician, a car mechanic, an engineer, a chemist, and a secondary school teacher. Among us we speak over eight languages. Our parents bring an advanced world view informed by thousands of years of culture from their countries of origin. I feel privileged to be part of their conversation and to learn together.

Yet, how many of these talented people are working in their field? One. Even though they were all welcomed to Canada, they can’t be certified or find work. Why? Because they don’t have “Canadian experience”. And you can’t get Canadian experience without certification.

This sad situation is a reality for so many of our parents and families. What a waste of human potential. We all need to examine our assumptions about the contributions of all Canadians. How can we widen our view and make sure everyone is able to contribute to the Canadian experience?

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Feedback. Priceless.

Becoming self aware as a person and as a leader is a journey.  Two essential ingredients are reflection and feedback. We cannot truly gauge our success as leaders without asking the people we serve how we’re doing.  Seeking feedback helps us check the assumptions we make about ourselves and our impact.

Last June, I asked our staff to complete a voluntary anonymous survey about my leadership as a school principal.  After reading Leading with Trust by Susan Stephenson,  I realized it was time for me take closer look at my leadership practices and especially my trust factor with staff.  This was a little scary, since I knew that not all feedback would be positive, but I also knew it was the best way for me to grow as a leader.  My Leadership Survey  was based on her example and included some rating questions and two open response questions. Stephenson cautions that sometimes the results can be hard to take.  The purpose was to get better picture of myself as a leader, so I needed the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I was pleased that 54% of staff completed a survey, more than enough to form a good sampling of opinion. The results?  Super interesting!  There were many positives where people recognized my strengths as an organized, committed and passionate instructional leader. Some offered really thoughtful insights on how I could do better. There was a strongly worded criticism, but in the end, it served to make me examine my behaviour more deeply. My biggest challenge was very clear: I need to become more approachable with all staff so they feel they can openly and easily share thoughts and feelings with me.  Reflecting on these results was humbling but incredibly powerful.

My next actions include sharing the results with staff and investigating how to build better trust. I want to become a better leader.  I want to be more effective.  I’ve taken the first step and more steps will follow. I challenge everyone to ask for feedback. Its effect is priceless.