“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.” ~Georg Christoph Litchenberg
The talk linked to this post is powerful, thought provoking and was, for me, disturbing. Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, legal scholar, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hopefully you will grab a bag of popcorn, dig in and watch the talk before you read this post. That is, after all, why I often ink my posts with media content.
Schools are complex systems; the interactions of children, families and educators are complicated- with moments of joy, outbursts of conflict and a level of intensity that is powerful. So powerful that emotion can, at times, trump reason and a balanced perspective. This is no more true than those times when children harm one another, respond to perceived injustices by acting out or challenge rules that they feel are unfair.
There was a time when we used terms like ‘zero tolerance’ to describe school discipline practices and policies- with the belief that punishment would be enough to ensure that students wouldn’t hurt one another or challenge the existing authority structures of the school. I reject this belief for a simple reason- it doesn’t really work.
Bryan Stevenson explains how and why it doesn’t ‘work’ with much more eloquence, authority and urgency that I ever could-I won’t even try (so watch the video-please).
What I will add is this-only because it is based on my experience as a father and an educator. Punishment doesn’t work because when we punish we are not teaching. As Ross Greene reminds us, children behave the way they can; based upon their experiences, state of mind and well being. Teaching requires that we understand the child’s needs and create the conditions for them to connect, reflect, communicate and learn. Whether it is learning about our number system, the events of our past, the elements of effective narrative writing; or what to do when you have harmed another person.
This is why effective schools -and enlightened youth police outreach programs- focus on restorative justice approaches. When children learn to accept responsibility and repair the harm that they have done we work towards solving two problems- the harm that was caused and the issues and challenges that led to the harm in the first place.
In my experience, the students who are subject to the most disciplinary responses exist on the margins- they have language or learning difficulties, mental health concerns like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or live in communities with limited resources, poverty or weak family support structures. Schools are supposed to serve to counter to these influences- not accelerate them- this is what it really means to be ‘fair’.
Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement. ~Daniel H. Pink~
The school year has an ebb and flow to it. The early days of September; filled with the excitement of a new school year, the novelty of a new classmates and the opportunity for a fresh start, are often referred to as ‘honeymoon’ phase. By early November, this early enthusiasm and excitement has usually waned as staff and students have settled into the routines, structures and expectations of daily school life. Honeymoons, after all, don’t last forever and the stresses of academic learning, peer dynamics can lead the children we teach to a wide range of behaviors that would seem familiar to anyone who has any life experience in a classroom or school.
Behavior is communication; we know that actions are a much more reliable source of information about people than words. In schools, we often see children’s behavior as something we (the adults) can control. In the pursuit of this noble goal we often expend a great deal of time and energy designing the type of incentive, reward and punishment schemes that our friends in The Office satirized in the video excerpt above. I’ve moved around a lot in my career as a teacher, staff developer and school administrator and one common observation I can make from these experiences is how deeply embedded the use of this type practice is in classrooms and schools.
Another observation I can make is for most kids (and especially those kids who are marginalized in any way) these ‘systems’ just don’t work. People much smarter than me have written and spoken at length on this topic (follow the links) but for me the reasons these programs don’t work comes down to three flawed assumptions:
- Our default stance is selfishness
- Learning is something we try to avoid
- Hierarchy is our natural order
Our history as a species tells us that to be human is to create, seek connections, novelty and networks. These patterns are embedded deep in our DNA; the desire to learn, form communities, follow our curiosity and nurture life, often regardless of the risks and costs. Cognitive and social scientists support this thinking with research on motivation and how cultures and societies reflect these common themes across time and geography.
That is why I struggle when I encounter practices that are designed to coerce, manipulate or intimidate children to learn and behave in a pro-social manner. Points or token systems and other external rewards shift the learning away from the internal (the child’s needs) towards the external (the adult’s needs). It is also why working to change this status quo is one of the areas I’ve focused a great deal of my time and energy on in my role as a school leader.
An important part of being in school for children is it gives them the opportunity to develop as social beings, experience both success and failure and, through these experiences and behaviors, build the resilience that will serve them for life. The author and provocateur Alfie Kohn asks us to consider whether our children experience these successes and failures as information or as a rewards and punishments?
I think I know how we got to this place in education-what I wonder is how we can interrupt and begin to develop a set of structures in our classrooms and schools that will lead us away from this place?
…there are many committed, forward thinking teachers who will make (inquiry and authentic work) happen despite the barriers. But community members, parents, legislators and lobbyists will resist large-scale transformative change at every turn because they are tied so deeply to their nostalgia for school as they knew it or to the potential windfalls of making traditional schools better.” ~Will Richardson~
It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. After a quiet, blissful summer with family and friends I’ve launched into the start of the school year at a new location with the opportunity to get to know a new team of educators, students and families. September did bring lots of new stuff; but to quote the dearly (and recently) departed dugout linguist Yogi Berra, there is an element of that deja vu all over again in our schools this fall.
Current circumstances and events, along with the some of the reading I’ve been reflecting upon, has got me thinking about where we are in our profession, in our schools and our systems. Specifically, I’ve been reading Will Richardson’s latest book From Master Teacher to Master Learner and hope to weave a narrative over the next few posts to share my thinking, connect with some fellow travelers and, hopefully, provoke others to do likewise.
I’m a tinkerer; a restless soul with a willing disposition to challenge the status quo. As a school principal and prior to that, as a classroom teacher, I’ve tried to meet challenges and solve problems with creativity, imagination and a willingness to try new things, take risks and make mistakes. It helps that I welcome the ideas and perspectives of others; especially when these prompt me to refine and revise my thinking. This is how I learn and, above all, I see myself as a learner.
This is why, I’m sure, that I’ve found Will’s blog posts, talks and books to be so helpful. I can connect with his ideas and perspectives, both as a father and an educator. They give me pause to think, help me reflect upon my work and support me in my advocacy.
To lead public schools today requires degrees of creativity, optimism, resilience and the capacity for what Roger Martin has called, integrative thinking; the ability to incorporate two seemingly opposite ideas simultaneously to create change out of unpleasant or difficult situations.
Right now, and for the past 20 years, the stakeholders in our school system have engaged in fierce conversations and debates about the structures of our system; allocation of resources, organization of schools, reporting processes, class size, standardized testing and sequencing of curriculum standards. These policy points reflect a belief that the imposition incremental adjustments to the structure of schools and systems can effect a change in outcomes for students. This hierarchical stance no longer serves us in our networked, connected world but it remains the dominant mindset that we apply to our classrooms, schools and systems.
Nested within this conversation is an actual problem; at every level of our system (classroom, school, district and and legislative) our structures reflect a scarcity mindset that is based upon one-way transmission. The teacher who limits student learning to content-based worksheet lists and discreet facts that are doled out incrementally in advance of the test is no different than the school administrator who is required to appraise teachers based upon student test scores and classroom look-for checklists; or the policy maker who makes the decision to mandate investments in resources (like school technology) without accounting for the front-line implementation of these resources in schools.
All of these examples reflect the belief that when information, or performance, or resources are transmitted and measured; learning is an outcome. But this is no longer the case.
Learning, Will reminds us, is actually an outcome of learning. And learning is a process that is provoked by the questions of the learner, not the information that is being transmitted by the teacher.
So the questions I want to explore over the next few posts relate to the things we can do as educators to interrupt this ‘deja vu’ and change our conversations (and our systems) to be learning-focused for all; teachers, administrators, parents and most of all, students.
“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” ~John Dewey~
This past week we held our last school council meeting of the year at Park Avenue PS; it also happened to be my last school council meeting as the principal at Park Avenue. There are many things I will miss about the school I’m leaving; the children, of course, our patient and dedicated staff, the terrazzo floors on the main floor (btw- I won’t miss the septic system). I will also miss the parents who have served as school council members.
I joined this school community at a challenging time. In the fall of 2012 Ontario educational workers were locked in a conflict with the provincial government with consequential job actions and there was a great deal of parental concern about the school’s performance on standardized tests; especially in mathematics. I was following in the footsteps of a highly experienced and well-regarded departing principal who had served the school for over half a decade. I remember clearly (and dearly) the buzz in the library that September evening as we tried to walk the thin line of getting to know each other while attempting to wrestle with the challenging issues that lay before us.
What I appreciated that night (and have grown to value even more) is the blunt, fair and respectful manner in which this group of parents approached me as principal and the capacity they have to be both advocates and learners at the same time. One of my principal heroes (nerd alert), Deborah Meier, has written extensively about the role schools, and school leaders, can play in building parental trust in our public schools. She asserts that there was time when parent trust was a given, but our changing societal, technological and cultural norms, along with the increase and impact of standardized accountability measures, have altered the relationship between parents and schools.
I can now reflect upon about the work we have done together as a school council and principal at Park Avenue and I shared this reflection with our council on Thursday night. It is highly important it is that parents question what we are doing in schools, as teachers, as school and system leaders. Questions are good. In large systems and bureaucracies, we tend to consider questions as gestures of mistrust or as a threat to the established order. My feeling is they are neither; they are opportunities to build trust and an important part of a healthy family/school relationship.
Parents who are truly involved with the work of their children’s schools should feel they can offer their support, their ideas and, their questions. During my time as principal some of the things our parent council have inquired about include mathematics pedagogy, assessment practices, use of technology, impact of student mental health on learning, sex ed., attendance, special education funding, labour relations and why the pizza at school tastes different than the pizza at home (that one comes up often). These questions have helped guide us, informed our responses and made us better as a school and, for this, our parent council deserves a great deal of credit.
I will miss the familiar faces and voices of our Park Avenue school council but I know I am going to school with parents who will feel the same as the group I am leaving. I am grateful for the questions they have asked of me, the trust they have given me and the lessons I have learned from both.
“We all want straightforward information about what’s working and what needs improvement. We also know there is more to education than scores in reading, writing and math.” ~People For Education~
Here is a question for parents- what do you really want from our schools and school systems? It’s a challenging question for challenging times. One reason for this is that the expectations parents have of our school system are often based upon their own experiences and their own unique contexts and priorities. We want schools to be safe, we want our children to be successful, happy and equipped with both knowledge and skills and we want our children to have friends. Let’s face it; when it comes to school, parents want it all (not to worry- it is okay for a parent to want it all for their child).
The challenge lies in how we decide to define the real success of a school and the ways that we may choose to measure this success. As a school and district we use surveys, focus groups, standardized assessments and and a wide range of demographic data to define and measure; and we respond through our school and board improvement plans.
As a principal, I count the smiles on the faces of the students and adults in the building; a simple but surprisingly useful metric.
The Ontario-based advocacy organization People for Education is exploring this topic because they believe that; “…it is both necessary and possible to create an easy-to-understand Canadian-made set of indicators that will be useful to educators, publicly accepted, and that reflect a complete education.” I encourage parents, educators, interested community members and students to click on this link and join the conversation.
“Inclusivity will be the milestone at which we shift from celebration and the implementation of strategies to the fundamental restructuring of our organization – our schools, classrooms, departments and Board. Inclusivity isn’t just inclusion. It isn’t just about belonging. It is about the constant evolution of the environments in which we belong. “ Ken Thurston, Director: York Region District School Board
The bells at our neighbourhood school just rang across the park. Our family has enjoyed an active, eventful and rich summer break and now it is time for us to return to school; my wife to her Kindergarten class, our 15 year old twins to grade 10, our eldest off to a 4 credit grade 12 Co-Op placement and me, well, I’ve really been back at work for a few weeks now.
As a family parented by two educators, we’ve always considered Labour Day to be more like New’s Years Eve. Along with the reality that, like most teachers, we always seem to still be awake at midnight the night before Day One, there is also the obvious reality that September brings us, as my colleague Dean Shareski writes, a clean slate. For these reasons, I’ve always looked forward to the start of the school year and its blank page and this year, even more so.
We all know our last school year was both unusual and eventful; all I have to offer about the past year is my sense of pride on how as families, staff and students we navigated the conflicts and tensions with respect, consideration and integrity, ’nuff said.
I’ve had a few resolutions I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks related to our school’s continued focus on Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation. So it was with some measure of delight that I listened to our Director, Ken Thurston’s keynote talk at our district’s Leadership Conference last Wednesday. Ken talked about the importance of engaging and trusting our students, staff and families, shifting towards a collaborative, lateral system and away from a hierarchical, expert-based system and embracing the realities with which our digital, networked world is confronting us. All messages I could embrace (and have been).
The quote that launches this post was the one that grabbed me. Inclusivity as more than just creating ‘belonging’ but as re-shaping our structures in response to the needs of our community-students, families and staff. I’m excited about this shift because, not only does it grant us permission to inquire and innovate, it challenges us to look at our existing practices, evaluate their impact and change them if they are not working.
As a school, we have made the decision to change our practices in response to the genuine needs of all of students, in particular our struggling and disengaged students. We have embraced the use of technology to support teacher and student learning and creativity, adopted a BYOD policy to support teacher and student autonomy and choice and we have developed our web and social media presence to reach out to, and connect with, parents, families and educators from beyond our school.
As I look towards tomorrow, and the start of a new school year; these are my humble resolutions:
- I will focus my efforts and energy on supporting our community (staff & parents) to grow the understanding we have of our students and their social, emotional and academic needs
- I will use these understandings to structure and evolve our programs; at the classroom and school level, in response to our student’s needs
- I will communicate regularly and clearly our challenges and successes, through this blog, our @ParkAvePS twitter feed and newly revised, weekly edition of our school newsletter, the Park Avenue Post
So Happy New Year to all; staff, parents and most of all, students. I’m looking forward to welcoming you all back and helping you learn to make your dreams come true!
Democracy works best when we have the leisure to do some hard thinking together. ~Deborah Meier~
Of all the issues we deal with as a school bullying is, by far, the most volatile and and delicate. In the range of issues I manage as our principal it fits into that box labelled ‘important and urgent’. The reasons for this can be rhymed off by most of us, parents educators and students, with fluency; perhaps not with the urgency and potency of the poetry that is linked to this post.
We all know that ‘bullying’ is an issue in schools. We know this because bullying is an issue in our society and schools are nothing more than a DNA samples of our communities; with one important difference, of course. Unlike our communities, in schools our children co-mingle and co-exist in very close proximity, sorted by age with adult supervision that is far different, in both ratio and role, than they experience in their families and homes.
It is in our public schools that our children receive their first, and longest lasting, impressions of what the ‘real world’ is all about; struggles, joy, despair, triumph, cruelty, justice and injustice- all played out on a daily basis. I’m pretty certain that each of us has as a goal the elimination of bullying, it would be pretty hard to advocate for this type of behaviour. But, this goal is both complex and demanding- and achieving it will require that we make some significant changes to the way we operate our schools.
Many of our most deeply and dearly held school traditions will need to be examined if we really wish to tackle this issue here at Park Ave. PS. The emphasis on competition, incentives and rewards; reflected in practices like honour rolls and awards; though greatly appreciated by the ‘winners’, do need to be examined. If we set as our common goal the creation of of a school that is truly inclusive; then we will need to take a hard look at all our practices and ‘do some hard thinking together.’
For me, bullying is a manifestation of the absence of empathy- the cold, hard application of ‘me first’. As a father, I know too well the protective instinct I have for my children- and how easy it is for me to place the interests and needs of my children before those of others. It is the struggle I have to find a place in my heart for the children of my neighbours that is tested when my children go to school. These are the conversations I have as our principal when I am working with families inside that ‘important and urgent’ box. I know that each of our parents send the best children they have to our school every day. And I know that these children struggle to learn who they are, make mistakes and, as a result, often hurt one another in many ways- the poem by Shane Koyczan illustrates just how impactful those hurts can be.
Our staff know I’m fond of using witty, pat phrases and one of my favorites is ‘I don’t just want to take the skeletons out of the closet, I want to dance with them!’ I’m proud that we will be focusing on bullying awareness, inclusion and the issue of homophobia on Pink Shirt Day this Wednesday and I’ll be wearing pink with pride.
I want more than another shirt day though, I want us to have a real conversation about how we can work on this in a democratic, inclusive and impactful manner- do you?