You know what they say about assumptions…

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I’ve been thinking a lot about assumptions lately,  and as I started reading Simon Sinek’s  “Start With Why”, something clicked. In his introduction Sinek cautions about trying to answer the wrong questions as they will always lead us to a place we did not intend to go. The same can be said about our assumptions, as administrators of teachers, as teachers of students, as teachers of parents, as parents of teachers, etc.  From this, and from my own thinking about the assumptions we make in education, and from reading a few blog posts recently (namely Peter Pappas‘ 2-part post here and here, and Jeff Delp‘s letter to his staff, my thinking all seems to be whirling around and I realize that there is an urgent need to explore these assumptions with my staff, and hopefully start working from the heart.

I’m hoping that after 2 years at my site I can ask my staff to become vulnerable with me and with each other as we explore these deeper questions.  For the staff that are new to us, I hope they are brave enough to join us. Some of the questions I want to explore with my staff:

What assumptions are you holding re: students, parents, teaching, admin, etc. that are either inspiring or motivating you to move forward, grow, develop, change?

What assumptions are holding you back?

In light of the assumptions that may be holding you back, what can we do to help each other?

I want to start the year by motivating the staff like Jeff by communicating with them about why we do what we do, not what. I plan to use Peter’s questions as well as the year goes on to keep ourselves focused on why we do what we do, not the what – the grades, the tests, the performance standards, etc. I plan to address my own assumptions and be more appreciative of the good that happens in the building.

It could be a great year…

10 Great Women Stars to Follow in the Twitterverse

Last week I read a post from William T. Sprankles (@PBSViking) where he created a list of amazing educators and leaders for people to follow. I already follow most of the people on that list and was happy to connect to a few more based on William’s recommendation. I would even add a few more from my PLN to that list:

When I shared William’s list on my Facebook account, colleague and PLN-er Brenda Sherry pointed out that there were some women missing from that list, so from that, I share with you a list of 10 women from my PLN who have been instrumental to my learning and in my development as a school leader because they propose innovative ideas, they challenge the status quo, they share their stories and they pose provocative questions. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I would love to gather more names, male or female of people who have helped transform you as a person, educator and leader, much as my PLN have for me.

All Children Can Learn – A Reflection

This summer/fall I’m taking an additional qualifications course through the Ontario Principals Council titled “Special Education for Administrators”. As a preassignment, the course instructor, herself an experienced administrator in our district, has asked us to reflect on the following statement:

“All Children Can Learn”

She has asked us to frame our thoughts with the following questions in mind, as they pertain to special education:

  • What does that statement say to you?
  • How do you demonstrate that you believe this statement for students with special needs?
  • What concrete/specific actions have you taken thus far?
  • Do teachers believe it? How do teachers demonstrate this belief in your school?

This was difficult for me. My first response was, “Well, duh!” but that doesn’t fill the required two pages. But when I started to dig behind those four words, I realized there is so much that speaks to my whole philosophy of teaching, leading and learning; so much that I found it overwhelming. I went to my Tweeps for feedback with the hashtag #allchildrencanlearn and I thank those that took the time to respond or retweet. I’d like to keep the Twitter discussion going, but after several days of thinking and brainstorming, I came up with a reflection piece that I think encapsulates what the instructor wants us to think about. I thought I would share my reflection below:

Personal Reflection: All Children Can Learn

Erin Paynter

Special Education for Administrators, OPC

July 9, 2012

“Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or the same way.”
— George Evans

All children can learn.

However, I feel that there are some inherent issues within that statement that can be misleading. First is to address what it means to learn in general. Is it simply meeting expectations written in a document? Is it coming away with new facts that one didn’t know before? Is it being able to ask questions or critically analyze information? Is it the ability to be innovative or creative? What does that mean? Does a grade of A or B mean a student has learned something? The statement in itself begs many questions about learning in general.

Second, this statement can also be misleading if you take into account that at all levels (school, district and provincial), there is a heavy reliance on “final grades” and standardized testing that gives way to an assumption that all children learn the same way. To be certain, we are moving away from this assumption, but it remains an uphill battle in many ways.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that learning, on its surface, means meeting the expectations in the curriculum. Yes, I wholeheartedly believe that every student can learn (i.e., meet expectations). As a teacher, I show this through my use of differentiation in tasks and assessments based on interests, abilities and readiness levels. I recognize that all students progress along an individual path of growth and learning but at different paces (note that I did not use the word continuum as it implies a straight line, which to me learning is not, but that’s for another day). I plan intentionally with all my students in mind and all the resources I have available so that every student can demonstrate their knowledge in the way that utilizes their strengths and fills up the gaps. I hold students to high expectations, and support the students to get them there. I co-teach with colleagues so that there is time to work towards precise learning goals with small groups of students.

As an administrator I try to build and sustain a culture among staff that encapsulates this belief. I strive to create the conditions necessary for these beliefs to be met, through giving staff time in the form of school-based professional development, whether it’s at staff meetings, or release time during the instructional day where teachers can meet to plan, moderate student work, co-plan/write IEP’s, etc. It’s not enough, and to be honest, I am still running through my head what I have done and what I can do to better walk this talk.

But does my staff really believe this statement? I’m hesitant to say yes. When I reflect on some of the conversations I have had with some of my staff or that I’ve overheard in the staff room, it’s apparent that there is still a lot “victim-blaming” going on. When staff are expressing their frustrations at why students aren’t meeting expectations (theirs or curriculum – they are often mutually exclusive), the conversation among some shift to what it is about the student that is preventing them from “being good students”. They’re lazy, they’re irresponsible, they’re unfocused, and/or they just don’t care. I rarely hear “Perhaps the task wasn’t engaging enough, or, perhaps I didn’t allow for certain students to access the task in a way that best suits them, or, perhaps I need to expand my definition of differentiation beyond that-small-group-the-spec-ed-teacher-works-with”, or anything that does not involve a diatribe of all that is wrong with so-and-so, or that so-and-so is limited in what they can do because of an identification of an exceptionality. So I guess my answer to the question at the opening of the paragraph is: not really, not yet. And the not yet part is where I, as an administrator, come in because gone are the days where it is acceptable or natural for educators to blame the student for not achieving or not doing well according to a set of homogeneous standards (i.e., curriculum). It is our duty and responsibility as educators to take every child in our care and support them in any way that, in the words of a colleague, “allows them to shine”.

Through this course I hope to refine my goals as an administrator when it comes to supporting all the students in my care, especially our most vulnerable students. My site has two systems (special education) classes – one for students with learning disabilities, and another for students with behaviour issues, as well as the myriad of students who are in the mainstream classes with special needs, from learning disabilities, toASD, to anxiety disorders and mild intellectual delays.

Some of my goals are:

  • to be more purposeful in the questions I ask of teachers when it comes to the achievement of all students, especially students with special needs. If there is victim-blaming, what kinds of questions can I ask that support self-reflection among my staff when it comes to the students with special needs in their classes?
  • to reflect and explore what concrete strategies/actions I can take to support my staff so that they are supporting their exceptional students in ways that best meet their needs
  • to reach out beyond my school and invite other support agencies in as an additional resource to my staff and my parent community
  • embed this philosophy into our School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement through the use instructional strategies, assessment strategies and look-fors that best support all our learners
  • to take a more appreciative stance when reflecting on the staff in my building so that we can build together on what we do well and address what needs changing

Ultimately, as an administrator, I will strive to work with my staff and my parent community to explore some of the more abstract and bigger issues that are at hand; namely to redefine what we believe to be learning; to really ask ourselves what we are saying through the way we assess and evaluate students with special needs and students in general, and to reflect on the goals we set for our students with special needs so that we push ourselves beyond seeing achievement as being tied to meeting a list of expectations.

So that’s my first crack at it. As I let it sit for a few hours, or until tomorrow, I may revise it. As my valued PLN, I welcome your feedback.

My summer reading list

So now that I have officially started my summer holidays, I can tackle the ever-growing mountain of professional books that I have been collecting over the past school year. I have listed some below and am looking for comments and feedback from others that have perhaps read them already. Are there some that are absolute “must-read-now” books? What were your thoughts, aha moments, or game-changers for you? Are there books you have read that are not listed, but you would recommend?

Happy reading!

NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Real Leadership Real Change, by Carol Hunter

Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler

Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery, by Kathleen Cushman

Leading 21st Century Schools, by Lynne Schrum and Barbara B. Levin

Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation in Your Organization, by David S. Weiss

Too Big to Know, by David Winberger

21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel

From Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Imagine: The Science of Creativity, by Jonathan Lehrer

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Shifting the Monkey, by Todd Whitaker

The Most Important Thing I Do

Yesterday our staff met for our final PD session of the school year. We could’ve sat with our School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement documents to talk data, curriculum and assessment, but I wanted to take us in a different direction. Our monthly staff meetings don’t always give our entire staff an opportunity to really dig deep into discussions, and we had some new staff joining us for next year, so I wanted to spend our last few hours together talking about kids, and we do for kids.

Our discussion spun off from interview questions we had for our teaching candidates from previous weeks. We usually asked the straight-forward, dry questions like, “Tell me about your philosophy of teaching.” We got great answers, but I was looking for something more inspiring. We shifted to, “What’s the most important thing you do for the kids you teach?” What a difference.

Because of that, we put the same question to our staff. It generated truly inspiring and heartwarming discussions, and I saw many of my staff in a different light. But my favourite came from one of our new staff members. He said, “I don’t just teach kids. They are in my care.”

This was an incredible way to finish off our school year, and I left the building feeling hopeful and excited about our next.

So to you now. What is the most important thing you do for the kids in your care?