I Love to Win

I love to win

People ask me all the time what I like about my job. I always say, unequivocally, it is getting ‘the win’.

I don’t mean I like to beat people at things.

What I mean is that every day, my staff and I go into our building and fight hard for our students’ success. Sometimes we are fighting to reach a disengaged student and we have to dig deep into our tool box to find a way to reach them. Sometimes a family comes to school in crisis and we have to access all of our board and community resources to make sure that everyone is OK. Sometimes it is us who are struggling as a school and we have to draw upon those around us to help us come out the other end.

What I’ve come to understand in almost 20 years in education is that you can’t get the win without great people around you. And if people know that you are putting your heart and soul into student success almost always they will line up to help you. They say, “I’ve got your back” and they mean it.

More often than not, getting the win involves innovative thinking and asking people to take a leap of faith. First we must create a culture of ‘yes’. Our staff has to know that we trust them to persevere, to innovate, and to create. At first, this is a huge risk for staff, especially those who are proficient at what they do. What if they try something new and fail? We have to make sure that when they take that leap of faith, they know we are there to catch them if they fall. Sometimes we do fail, and we don’t get the win. It hurts. On those days we take a minute to figure out what went wrong and then we try again. And again. What is most important is that student success remains the singular focus of our efforts and the drive behind our innovation. When we say failure is not an option for our students, we have to mean it.

At times, innovative thinking runs up against barriers. I am so fortunate to work with a group of people who are willing to persevere, to problem-solve, and to seek out and eliminate the barriers to student success. We fight together for our students.

Today we had a big win, and we had a lot of help to get it. Tomorrow we implement our solution and see what happens. The next day we take on a new fight.

Win. Win again. Win more.


Playing Pass the Lemon?


Have you ever had a conversation about a staff member in your building who frustrates you? Maybe even a vent to a colleague? Ever had that person tell you to give them an assignment the following year that they will hate so that they leave?

What they are referring to is a practice commonly known as ‘passing the lemon’. Making an underperforming staff member feel unwanted so they leave and become someone else’s problem.

I believe that this practice is unethical and straight-up wrong. Besides that, what if you offer a horrible package so they’ll leave…and they don’t? Who pays the price?

Do you think that any staff member gets up in the morning and decides they are going to go in and do a terrible job? Do you think they look forward to feeling unwanted, inept, or otherwise marginalized? Dr. Ross Greene (livesinthebalance.org) tells us that kids do well if they can, and we just have to find out why they can’t and remove the obstacle so that they can do well. Why should we afford the adults in our building less care and consideration? Why are we not ‘behaviour detectives’ for our staff members like Dr. Stuart Shankar (self-reg.ca) asks us to be for our students?

We often make an assumption that adults are well-equipped to handle the job and therefore if they are underperforming, it must be because they have a bad attitude, or they just ‘don’t wanna’ as Dr. Greene says. But what if we invested in these people? What if we let them know that we have high standards and expectations for them, but we would also support them in meeting expectations in any way we can? What if we showed them that no matter what, we would give them our best and help them to be their best?

The first argument I always get back is that these staff members don’t want to improve. That no matter what the principal says or does, that staff member just has a bad attitude and will never change. Hey, that might be true, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying to find something positive about that person and try to build a relationship from there. I’m not saying patronize people or give inauthentic praise. Get to know the person and their motivations. Do they know what to do in their classroom or are they overwhelmed and embarrassed? Are there too many ‘new’ initiatives coming at them at once and they are afraid to look incompetent if they abandon what has always worked in the past? Are they struggling with classroom management and don’t want to be seen as incompetent? Were there experiences in their past that might have led them to act they way they do or see things in a different way such as trauma or incidents of individual or systemic racism? Is there something, abilities-wise that is preventing them from performing as expected?

We all know that relationships are key in leadership, but how hard are we willing to work to reach each of our staff members? When the going gets tough, do we give our people our best or do we abandon them? What if ‘passing the lemon’ was not an option? Todd Whitaker (toddwhitaker.com) tells us that if we treat everyone as if they’re good, then they will be. This doesn’t just mean once or when it’s easy. He tells us to treat everyone as if they’re good on ten out of ten days, because we never know on which day it will make a difference.

There are three ways we can approach a staff member who is underperforming. One, we can ignore them and hope they go away or get better through some unexpected miracle. Two, we can take a relatively adversarial stance right from the get go and take every opportunity to write letters of discipline or collect data toward an unsatisfactory TPA. This inevitably involves both the administrator and the staff member feeling incredibly negative throughout the whole process.

The third approach would be to start with finding out what the barriers to success are, and trying to systematically remove them.  As a principal and system leader, I am a servant to my staff, students, and parents when it comes to removing barriers to success. Sometimes it takes a really, really long time (years, in some cases!) to get to the crux of the issue and find a way to move past it. But we have to do this work. Sometimes the way in is to show these staff members how hard we are willing to work to get them something they need. Sometimes it is sitting down with them and talking out a classroom issue or co-planning a lesson. Sometimes it’s a matter of showing support when they are in a difficult situation with a student or parent. Again, this support must be authentic and standards must remain high. Sometimes very difficult conversations precede these support situations, and changes in behaviour or performance must occur immediately, especially if student learning and well-being are at stake. But if our support is unwavering while they make these changes, the relationship remains intact. I have also made it very clear to my staff that asking for help is a sign of strength and of being a reflective practitioner, and that my job is to help, not judge. I also try to make clear and public my learning experiences so that they understand that moving forward is an expectation, no matter where they are starting from.

Over the last few years, our province and board have invested more time and resources into mentorship programs for new teachers and new administrators. The Peel Board also has instructional coaches, instructional coordinators, coordinating principals, superintendents, and other system leaders who I have always found ready to help out when I ask for it. They send resources, attend meetings, and in the case of the instructional coaches, spend 1:1 time with staff members who need help. The help is always there and provided without judgement, so we should use it! The unions also have lots of help available to staff members if they choose to access it. I’ve had very positive relationships working with union representatives to seek help for staff members who have asked for it. We are all in it for the same thing after all: staff members feeling good about their work and performing in a satisfactory (or better) manner.

We need to take seriously our role as leaders, and not just manage our people. When I took formal leadership training with the Canadian Forces reserve, we were always told that it was our job to make our followers better than we ever were. My PQP 1 instructor told us to invest in our people and then get out of their way as they move on to greatness.  It is our job to build the capacity of staff in our building and consequently in the system as a whole. If we ‘pass the lemon’, we are not helping anyone.




So What Do We Do Now? Part 2

In my last post I talked about the Ontario government’s sudden and unexplained cancellation of the Indigenous education writing teams. This post will express similar dismay in the actions of this very new government, but this is in regard to the repeal of the 2015 Health and Physical Education curriculum.

I don’t know why this curriculum was a target. I honestly don’t. The consultation process was probably the most comprehensive of any modern-day curriculum, with over 4000 parents, over 2000 educators, and hundreds of students included. The Health curriculum update was long overdue. When it came out, I was pleased to see that it addressed current issues such as online behaviour, that it reflected current realities such as LGBTQ2S+ individuals and families, and of course that it dealt directly with the issue of consent. I don’t understand how anyone who had read the curriculum could think it was a bad thing.

But I think that is the key…anyone who has read the curriculum. I think there are a few individuals who have either not read the curriculum or have misinterpreted it and then have used very loud voices to spread misinformation. Some parents have come to me with the following misconceptions (this is not an exhaustive list):

  1. Teachers will be showing explicit images and (essentially) pornographic instructional videos.
  2. Teaching kids about being gay or transgender will make them want to try it.
  3. Children should not know the proper names of body parts or the functions of the reproductive system since that will make them more likely to become sexually active earlier.

Research has told us over and over again that a good Health curriculum actually protects children from being abused and empowers them to say no to any activities that make them feel uncomfortable. It makes them more critical when participating in relationships and more likely to stand up for themselves. (See this summary by Rebecca Ruiz, for example: https://mashable.com/2017/10/25/teach-sex-ed-prevent-sexual-harassment-and-assault/#CA9X0dFDzPqx)

I believe that reading the comments on news articles and seeing the backlash from educators, parents, and professional organizations (see the recent statement from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, for example: https://sogc.org/news-items/index.html?id=217) when the government undertakes the ‘new’ consultation process, 1) They will have a lineup of volunteers willing to participate, and 2) The results will likely be nearly the same. However, right now the Ontario government has decreed that we will be teaching the 1998 curriculum in the fall.

So what do we do now?

First, I want to make it clear to readers and to my staff that inclusivity is protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code (HRC). The HPE curriculum is not the only place we teach about our friends and family members who identify as LGBTQ2S+. My staff continues to receive professional development both internally and within the board so that inclusivity is interwoven into all aspects of our curriculum. We have an excellent Climate For Learning and Working team and a very active Equity and Inclusivity Department full of resource personnel willing to assist our staff in making our classrooms ‘mirrors and windows’ for our students. I have been an administrator in 4 schools and every single one of those schools has had students who identify as LGBTQ2S+, some as young as Kindergarten or Grade 1. When people say that kids are too young to learn about “this type of thing” I respectfully disagree that it is never too early to teach acceptance. We can’t wait to act until someone dies by suicide, or is bullied, or just doesn’t feel like they are ‘normal’. A very wise 10-year old said recently of The Day of Pink (to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying), “The fact we still have to have special days to talk about this stuff means that it’s not seen as normal yet and we have a long way to go.”

We will continue this OHRC-protected work. The removal of these items from the Health curriculum literally does nothing to stop us. Nothing. I want all my LGBTQ2S+ students and families to know unequivocally that they are safe at Sheridan Park. To abandon this work would be to put our children in danger.

The Peel Board has a document called Empowering Modern Learners (see http://www.peelschools.org/aboutus/21stCentury/Pages/default.aspx). Within that document are listed “Access to Technology”, “21st Century Competencies”, and “Learning Culture” as three of the six innovative elements. Teachers are increasingly using digital platforms and tools to facilitate learning. As a part of this process and these innovative elements, teachers explicitly teach and model digital citizenship and have frequent conversations about one’s digital footprint. They talk about the impact of online actions now and in the future. These discussions take place not just in Health class, but in Language, Math, Science, Social Studies, French, the Arts…all classes! Removing the topic from Health formally will not stop these conversations from happening. Whether it is explicitly stated or not within the curriculum documents, our staff know that it is critical to teach our students early and often. A good example of the power of this conversation comes from an experience at a previous school where two students came to me to report something that just didn’t seem right on one of their friend’s Facebook account (this was a few years ago when the kids were still using Facebook!). When we investigated further, we (together with the Peel Police) determined that their friend was the target of Internet luring, and was set to meet the person they thought was a 14-year old boy at a major shopping centre within a few days. The students who had reported it said they remembered what their teacher said about thinking critically about people who contact you online. That lesson might have saved that girl’s life.

So, we will continue the work of digital citizenship because to abandon it would be to put our children in danger.

That leaves consent. I would hope that the concept of consent is taught to children before they even enter school, but I know it is something we work with children to understand right from Kindergarten. In our daily conversations and interactions, we remind children that their bodies are their own and they have a right to speak up if they don’t like what someone is doing to them. I hear educators modelling what to say and facilitating discussions between students if something happens and one of the children is uncomfortable. These conversations happen at recess, during lunch, during class time, and other unstructured times. If this concept is removed from the Health curriculum, we will simply have to step up our conversations in other curricular areas. Positive relationships and the right to say no are an integral focus in our discussions of respect.

Again, we will continue our work in the area of consent because to abandon it would again put our children in danger.

The “sex” part of the curriculum is not very different from the 1998 to 2015 documents. It was and is a relatively small part of the document. I think there are big misconceptions about what is in the curriculum and how it is taught. I want the public to know that if we showed graphic sexual images or instructional videos, we would be disciplined immediately and probably fired. Heck, we get in trouble if we show a PG-13 movie without a warning to families! I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but I just want to make it abundantly clear that educators possess professional judgement and no one in their right mind would show these images in schools. They just wouldn’t.

So my messaging to staff will be to continue to do the work that will keep our kids safe. We are not ‘defying’ anyone by continuing to teach the concepts I have outlined above. It is critical as an equity-focused leader that I send a strong message that the work we are deeply engaged in will continue. With the unwavering and dynamic support of our board, we will continue to create educated and knowledgeable critical thinkers, positive digital citizens, and students who look at the world with an equity lens and who will create the conditions of inclusivity in their lives beyond our walls. I believe my colleagues in surrounding boards will make a similar commitment.


So What Do We Do Now? Part 1

This week has seen several announcements made by the new Ontario government that will severely impact our schools in September. As a principal, I have to figure out how to make the best of what is happening and motivating my staff to continue to provide the best possible education opportunities for our students.

The first announcement was the sudden and unexpected cancellation of the writing teams set to meet together to create curriculum resources to support the teaching of Indigenous Education and Culture. The teams were to be made up of educators and Indigenous scholars, elders, and community members. The work of these teams was to address the TRC Calls to Action #62 and #63. My current and previous schools have been a part of our board’s Indigenous Education Strategic Action Plan (SAP), and as such I have learned a great deal about our hidden past here in Canada, and have worked hard to ensure this information is conveyed in an accurate and age-appropriate way to the staff and students at my schools. The writing teams were to create resources that would make it easier for educators who didn’t necessarily know where to start convey an accurate history to our students and begin the work of reconciliation in earnest. The cancellation of these writing teams was like a gut punch. It was like the Ontario government was outright abandoning the work that had begun to gather momentum in our province in order to move toward reconciliation.

So what do we do now?

I am fortunate to have two things on my side: 1) a school board committed to continuing our equity work, and 2) a hard-working and professional staff who is also committed to continuing this work. I have no doubt that the provincial government’s announcement will only fuel the desire of our equity champions to speed up the creation of resources to get this information to our students and their families. I have seen evidence of this already as I read posts on Twitter every day from equity leaders across the province (including individuals and school boards), faculties of education (such as the University of Toronto), and publishers/authors (see, for example quillandquire.com). Libraries are posting lists of Indigenous resources they have curated, publishers are giving away copies of books, and individuals are posting content they have created to support this work. There is a clear grassroots uprising to ensure the work of Reconciliation will continue.

So how does that translate to the classrooms at my current school? I think it is important that I send a strong message to my staff that no one…NO…ONE…can stop us from doing equity work in our building. We will continue our professional learning through board initiatives such as the SAP, and individual learning such as completing the Indigenous Canada course (offered free through the University of Alberta on the Coursera app), reading accurate history books and current narratives of the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada and beyond, and working directly with Indigenous groups and individuals. The largest professional inquiry group (voluntary and self-selected) at my school is one working on integrating Indigenous history, culture, and current issues into ALL areas of the curriculum. The inquiry group is made up of teachers from all divisions and both the English and French Immersion streams. I have an excellent teacher-librarian who is working to increase the diversity of our collection through the acquisition of French and English picture books written by Indigenous authors, and who is working with the CI team, pushing them forward. I have an amazing instructional coach who beamed with excitement when I told her we were accepted into the SAP for next year because this work is a personal and professional passion of hers. The deep desire of my staff to move toward understanding and reconciliation is obvious.

Educators have this nasty habit of giving of themselves to make up for budget or other shortfalls. I have a feeling that this is one of the reasons education cuts are always on the table. People know that we will never leave kids behind and always work to ensure that our communities and families are welcomed into our schools. I am proud of the work the Peel District School Board is doing, and even more so of the work being done at my own school, Sheridan Park PS. However, I think it’s time the new provincial government take a hard look at the shock and outrage being expressed at their clear lack of commitment to the TRC Calls to Action and to Reconciliation and change their direction immediately.

My next post…So What Do We Do Now? Part 2 (the Health Curriculum) – stay tuned!