The Speed of Enlightenment

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.        ~African Proverb

Seriously? We have to choose?

What about this: “If you want to go fast and far, let there be spaces in your togetherness”?

You’re guilty, I’m guilty. We want things relatively fast. Just not, for the love of God, slow. And please: not always together.

It can be infuriating. The meetings.The waiting to hurry up. The feigning of interest in someone’s absurd point of view. The humouring of curmudgeons. The compromises. The time.

So we see senior administrators trying to fast track change by circumventing due process. Here’s one way to ensure that your initiatives falter—make them unilaterally. Don’t ask your teachers. Keep everyone guessing. Post job openings that start the rumour mill humming. Keep a low profile. Remember, lasting change comes from the outside in.

“I think the first thing one has to do [in setting out to change a culture],” says Robert Dockson, “is get people on one’s side and show them where you want to take the company. Trust is vital. People trust you when you don’t play games with them, when you put everything on the table and speak honestly with them. Even if you aren’t very articulate, your intellectual honesty comes through, and people recognize that and respond positively” (p. 161, On Becoming a Leader, Bennis).

Attempting to change culture without communicating purpose is futile. Leaders must be able to articulate their vision, because, as Marty Kaplan says, “if someone is a complete master of what they need to know, but is unable to explain why I should care about it or want to help, then they can’t get me to support them.”

If you want to go fast, go alone. We’ll catch up sooner or–more probably–later.

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Bill 22, Catch 22, and Gettin’ By with a Lotta Help from my Friend

I spent a long time trying to write a post on why I support this week’s strike. Perhaps because I work in an extreme situation (17 of my 27 students have moderate to severe learning needs), the results were less than satisfying. All I ended up doing was painting my school and students in a harsh light—not my intention. The focus just didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t seem to get it right.

Here is one thing I love about my school: you don’t have to figure out everything on your own. Everyone supports each other in a way that is foreign to me. For example, no one has said to me, “Your kids did such-and-such-bad-thing.” (As a Grade 7 teacher, I’m used to that.) In this place, every student is everyone’s student.

So enter my outstanding colleague Sooz Svennson. She happened to send me the letter she’d written to her MLA. Sooz has spent most of her career working in high poverty schools, and she operates from a place of compassion. She has graciously allowed me to print excerpts from her letter here:

I do the impossible for the most deserving students and families in a community with the lowest per capita income in B.C. I teach in one of Nanaimo’s inner city classrooms amongst a staff of dedicated teachers, educational assistants and a principal who has both compassion and leadership.

  I invite you to walk our hallways for a moment and venture into my room. According to a recently released report from the Vancouver Island Health Authority that made the front page of the Nanaimo Daily News, March 3, 2012, poverty has become noticeably worse. I offer you two realities that need a brighter and warmer light cast upon them: the factual side of what kids experience (the statistics), and the heart they show in living those stats. I am fortunate to see the resilience of many and to fall head over heels into advocacy. Here’s the comparison between Nanaimo poverty statistics and the Provincial averages: 

Children living on income assistance in Nanaimo: 7.8%; B.C. average: 4%

Children living on income assistance in Nanaimo with a single parent: 5.9%; B.C. average: 3.2%

Reported child abuse cases for children in Nanaimo aged 0-18: 11.1 per 1000; B.C. average: 10.9

 From where I stand on the classroom stoop, welcoming my crew every school day, I see much more than just statistics. I ask each one to enter not just as ‘kids’ but as ‘students’ who are becoming more aware of themselves as learners and as apprenticing citizens. 67% of our students are living in poverty, with 118 on our lunch program and many coming early for a breakfast. 61% of our students live in either single or blended family situations. Grandparents raising grandchildren and great grandchildren are our heroes. I could go on. The suffering is palpable.

The real outside world stomps through my room every day, all day, despite my efforts to better fit my teaching to a diverse crew of learners. High transience has students coming and going as rents go up, relationships dissolve and fortunes change. Transitions are not always smooth, and school may in fact be the safest place to be. Calm for many can be disconcerting. Anticipating conflicts and using words to problem-solve is a gift. Survival mode is familiar to many. Reactions come on fast and strong reverberating through the room as old traumas are triggered. Lessons often come to temporary halt as relationships are tended to and mended with ‘mom talks.’ My word has to mean something to hold my class together. I do not make threats. I do not speak in anger. The only card I carry is my disappointment. The tie that binds us is genuinely caring about one another. It is felt.

 This is what I had hoped the Minister of Education, George Abbott, understood before he came up with the heavy-handed Bill 22. I see too much potential in my students to not wish for a negotiated settlement and a restoration of rights as determined by the BC Supreme Court. From 2001-2007, 600 Special Education teachers were cut, while 1000 more students requiring their expertise were added to the existing load. It continues. Class size and class composition are very real concerns for teachers seeking to meet their students needs. I speak from experience in an extreme situation.

I choose to serve the most deserving. I will not sit back to hear of how the minister plans to compensate some teachers when their classes go over thirty. How will those learners be compensated for the compromises they will make? My class of 21 is already compromised. If only a third of a class functions near grade level, how is each member of that class to be best served if, as Abbott suggests, caps are discriminatory? It has become absurd. Education is where hope waits for us to stand up and speak our truth. My classroom is sacred ground deserving of the greatest respect. I tether my hope on being permitted to teach to the prescribed learning outcomes for all my students because it is the right thing to do.

 Thanks to Sooz and all my other colleagues who are fighting for workable, sustainable classroom conditions—so that all kids have a chance at a great education.

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The Ultimate Principal Rubric

I have worked in eleven schools in four districts with twelve administrators. One conclusion I’ve reached: Nothing affects school atmosphere more than the principal.

I don’t want that to be true. I want to say, “It’s the staff! The students! The coffee!” How can so much rest on one?

But it’s the inescapable reality. I’ve read many books on educational leadership—and they all seem over-thought. So I’ve decided to simplify things by creating my own rubric. I call it “The Four Types of Principals”:

Disorganized

Organized

********************* Old School           New School

(If anyone can tell me how to insert a chart into a blogpost, I’d be grateful! This will have to do.)

Bottom left, we have Old School Organized—a.k.a., the Dictator. “I have a clear mandate. The only time I will need to talk to you is when you’ve broken a rule or when I introduce a new Protocol. Oh–and you will teach phonics. From this book.” The best thing about these principals is that they run a tight assembly. The drawback is that you may have to redo your report cards four times.

Top left, we have Old School Disorganized—a.k.a., Slightly Senile Uncle Frank. According to Frank, “Kids basically teach themselves. Also, if I don’t answer the phone, that person will go away. Here, have a candy.” The best thing about working for Uncle Frank is that you never have to hand in year plans. The worst part is that he may not show up to supervise the year-end camping trip like he promised.

Top right, we have Disorganized Mr. Innovation—a.k.a., the Well-intentioned Professor. “This thirty page handout is an elegant summary of current practices and research in Scandinavian countries. Note that (mumble, mumble) is forty percent more likely (mumble) which perhaps goes without saying—ha ha.” The best thing about these administrators is that they’re often gone to committee meetings or conferences. The drawback is that even when they’re in the building, you’ll still be doing all your own discipline.

Bottom right, we have the Organized Innovator. This is the rarest of them all—someone who is up-to-date and on-the-ball. This is the administrator who focuses on several thoughtful initiatives and follows through on promises to kids, teachers and parents. This is the person who orders chairs for the Christmas Concert, remembers to come, has a speech prepared, helps clean up, and is then invited to go out for drinks with the staff. This is the administrator who backs up her teachers when things get tough. This is the one who doesn’t ignore inconvenient truths but faces them with straightforward common sense, the one who makes difficult decisions. She is utterly dependable, the bedrock of the school. No one can imagine the school without her.

This is, in fact, my administrator. Her name is Diane McGonigle, and she’s part mentor, part mom, part Mother Teresa. She is the linchpin. Yes, we have strong players on our team, and yes, leadership is distributed. But it is so comforting to know that there’s a competent co-pilot. We’re not driving this thing alone.

Diane McGonigle, Principal Extraordinaire

So this Friday night, after an insane week, I salute all administrators who have the often thankless job of running schools.   Even Uncle Frank—although I have the feeling he’s probably already asleep.