Parents Coming for Student Meetings

Interesting Ideas

This week I wanted to share some ‘interesting ideas’ about meeting with families.  

As a school we would often discuss parents coming to the school for a meeting and what we could do as a staff to make sure the parents were heard, they were comfortable, they felt safe and we had productive conversations in order to support their child.

While the pandemic has really changed how we engage with families, the ideas shared here can and should be transferrable to an online meeting as well.  In the future, I believe I would ask a family which they would prefer, virtual or face to face meetings.  And, a day will come when we have our families back in our schools and parents in meetings to discuss their child.  The last many months have showed us that we can still use great communication skills to have effective meetings.

The first thing we must recognize is that not all parents are comfortable coming to the school.  For some, they may have had negative experiences as students and coming back to a school reminds them of this. No matter what we do to make our schools warm and welcoming they are still a formal setting that we know parents are, at times, nervous to attend.  Add to that the worry that they must feel when we are speaking about their child and it all means we have to work really hard to make the experience as positive as we possibly can.  If the only communication a school does with a family is to share bad news it is no wonder they do not want to come and spend time with us.

One of the key points we shared with staff is that we have parents coming to our space and then we are the ones that do all the talking? This was not going to happen at our school. We were going to concentrate on ensuring there was an equal dialogue with our parents.  We were going to encourage an equal sharing of air time.

If parents came for special education meetings with a long agenda we increased the amount of time we had for each family.  If we ended a meeting early we would utilize this ‘found time’ to do other things, but we definitely did not want to cut our meetings short or be rushing parents out the door.  The rationale behind this was simple, not only are we speaking about their child in a support context, but it may be the only opportunity we have with this family.  They were going to get our best.  This starts by giving them the time needed to make sure they had their questions answered and their thoughts expressed.

It is sometimes important to coach staff prior to the meeting about how much to say, what things to say etc. This is an excellent way to increase their comfort level by making them aware of what may be coming up and ensures that your meetings run as you expect them to run.

We would display an agenda with ‘Student A’ ‘Student B’ etc listed with times.  Families could see the posted times and we would highlight the length of time we had together as we started.  This built understanding that we were on a timed agenda and we all wanted to respect the time of the other families we would see that day.  We would do our best to make sure our meeting was completed in the time allotted, however, we would share how we would continue the conversation if time did run out.  Setting this expectation before beginning assisted us greatly in staying on task.  As we were approaching the end time we would summarize ‘who would do what, by when’, and how this would be followed up.  If more time was required we would set this up at this time so families knew they had our support.

The other analogy we would share with staff comes from Crucial Learning and the program, ‘Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue’.  We asked staff to think of taps that flow into a basin or sink.  There would be both a hot and cold faucet and we shared how this relates to conversations with families.  Most important was the idea that everyone must contribute to the ‘shared pool of meaning’ which requires everyone to have their taps on.  

When someone is sitting in silence we must have people skilled in making them feel comfortable and safe so they will turn on their taps and contribute to the conversation.  As well, if someone is running hot and have their taps on full we must have the skills to have them turn down the flow and contribute in a shared manner to the conversation.  Sometimes they need to be provided with an opportunity to just ventilate, but there is a line and requires someone skilled in conversation to make sure that a family does not step over that line and we can return to a proper dialogue.  I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Crucial Conversation training.  It is an extremely valuable tool for yourself and your staff.  

Link to all courses provided by Crucial Learning.

We wanted to use this taps analogy to make sure we allowed and invited parents to turn on their taps and contribute to the conversation.  One person in the meeting was always asked ahead of time to monitor the contributions in order to work towards sharing the air time.  As a school we did not want to overuse the time. At the end of the meeting the parents should speak an equal amount or more than the staff at the school and we must invite this contribution.

Another important aspect that shows respect for the family and the child is to have only one person taking the notes of the meeting that will later be shared with everyone in attendance.  Others in the meeting can then concentrate on really listening to the conversation and focusing their attention on the speaker.

Introductions are made at the beginning of the meeting and everyone’s role in connection to the child. If possible place name plates in front of the staff so the family know who they are speaking with. 

After introductions and the purpose stated it is important to ask the family if that was their understanding of how the time would be used.  If there is anything else they would like to share or talk about while we are together you can then make adjustments, since we are there for the parents and their child.  Or,  you may have to address the added content at another time.  Asking this clarifying question at the start makes sure you are beginning the meeting with everyone having the same purpose in mind.

boxes and bows celebrating Christmas
Photo by George Dolgikh @ on

This is such a wonderful time of year in schools.  December includes so many celebrations, holy days and special occasions.  We share many key similarities in these events: family, friends, food, remembering, celebrating love, joy and happiness.  My family celebrates Christmas and as such I would like to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.  I’ll be taking a break from writing blogs until 2022.  Be well everyone.

Students At Parent Meetings

A benefit for all. A benefit for you.

Interesting Ideas

I am writing to you this week from Bloomington, Indiana where I have spent the weekend working and learning with some amazing educators at Solution Tree. I still wanted to keep my consecutive weeks of writing streak alive so this is going to be a short, but still a really important “interesting idea” for you to consider.

As a school administrator consider inviting a student or students to your School Council meetings.  Whatever the set up and/or name for your parent organization, be certain to find a way to invite a student to attend the beginning of the meeting.  

Let me explain.

I had the pleasure of working in a terrific school that also had a very strong, vocal and active parent organization.  In Ontario this is called the School Council.  Along the way they had lost sight of why they existed as an organization and while they still did amazing things for the students and the community they also spent lots of time on political issues that were outside their mandate.  They ceased to be an advisory council and instead focused on broad system content that had little to do with the school.

I started inviting students to the council meeting in order to do a little presentation or performance to remind all of us why we all connect to the school.  At first they did not want to give up time on their agenda, but I persisted. The students would be invited and I would contact families to brag about the wonderful things their child was doing and asked if their child could share the news with others.  I asked parents to bring their child to the school in the evening for the beginning of the meeting and then leave when their section was complete.  Students were always first on the agenda.

This exercise had so many benefits.  

Parents of the invited students were able to stay and see the beginning of the meeting and would sometimes become interested in returning to future meetings or get involved in council positions for the following year.  Often they were not aware of the council, its role or that they were invited to every meeting.  Our parent involvement increased through these new parents.

For our students it was an opportunity to share their good work, or highlight an aspect of the school.  Students felt really proud if they were asked by the administration to attend because of something they were contributing to the school.  Sometimes our staff would invite a group of students to come into the meeting to demonstrate something that was happening with our learning. Council went on a ‘field trip’ in the school and were able to travel to parts of the school they may have never seen.  Parents of young students were able to see the science lab, the application room or music room and realize the resources that were available to students in our school and would one day be used by their child as they aged into the program.  We were able to share some of our specialized programming we offered in our school so parents could see for themselves the care, support and learning that occurred for some of our high needs students.  It broke down barriers and answered questions that they may have had about some of the impressions they may have formed about sections of our student population.  Teams were celebrated, clubs were able to highlight extra curricular opportunities, the arts’ program were given an additional opportunity to perform after all their long hours of practice.  All great things.

And, the parents on council were reminded of the work we do at the school.  A gentle nudge about what our agendas should be about, how we are all working together to support students.  And maybe, some of the other talk would decrease in volume.

These events were always really proud moments for all and as an administrator another opportunity for you to reach out to your community to highlight the amazing work of your staff and the talents and skills of your students.

Try this interesting idea, start every parent meeting by having a presentation with students. It is a win-win-win situation.

School Mental Health

Interesting Ideas

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a meeting in Toronto for some financial auditors who were working in school systems across Canada.  Each of the provinces and territories were represented and when I asked what they would like to see presented they responded with Mental Health in the school.

They did not want to see policy, or documentation, instead they wanted to learn about a single school’s story and how we constructed a community to support our students. Since I could not bring them to the school I video taped and photographed aspects that contributed to our success as a caring, thoughtful, community focused and safe home for students.

We started our conversation by discussing the stigma that hangs over any conversation of mental health, and how when we use the phrase physical health we paint an entirely different picture in our minds. 

I shared some statistics that spoke of one in every five students struggling with mental health, but wanted to focus my discussion with them about five students of every five.  What are we doing for all students?

I had them picture a pyramid divided into three sections to illustrate the percentage of students at each of three levels. Section one at the base of the pyramid is the majority of the students, referred to as tier 1 with no mental health issues but having occasional upset.  The second tier of students, a lower percentage, had some mental health distress and the top of the pyramid, our students with mental health disorders requiring medical intervention.  With this in mind, I then wanted them to focus with me on the base of the pyramid.

To assist me with this presentation I used a marvellous resource; School Mental Health Assist and have included the link to a the pdf INFO SHEET.  It is their Overview of Mental Health and Well-Being at School.  I gave the participants of my presentation a ‘walk through’ of my school by utilizing the descriptors within the model.

The Aligned and Integration Model (AIM) for School Mental Health and Well Being is what I used to tell our school story and you should use it as well.

From the INFO PAGE: ‘The Aligned and Integrated Model (AIM) for School Mental Health and Well-Being brings together fundamental elements of Foundations for a Healthy School, within the framework of a multi-tiered system of support.  Educators can welcome, include, understand, promote, and partner to enhance the well-being of ALL students.  We can prevent risk, offer support, and bolster protective factors to build the well-being of students who are experiencing difficulty with their mental health. School and community mental health professionals can collaborate to intervene with the FEW students exhibiting significant mental health disorders’

Aligned and Integration Model (AIM)
Aligned and Integration Model (AIM)

Notice that between all the tiers the model uses the phrasing.

Foundation-School and classroom leadership

Notice-Early identification

Bridge-Mobilize board and community services.

Foundation is a key word, and it is truly here, where we as educators have the greatest amount of impact.  As a school leader I can work with our staff to focus our attention on the key aspects of tier one, moving to our need for ‘early identification’.  My talk was about mobilizing staff to focus their attention on these tier one key words. Readers of this blog will recognize the importance of these words in the previous content.

Using all of these key words within the AIM I then shared examples of what we were doing at a school level to ‘welcome’, ‘include’, ‘understand’ etc

If you are given an opportunity to share what you are doing at your school in order to support all the students during tough times, and particularly now as we return to a new normal, I highly recommend you use this resource.

Not only are you able to align the initiatives you are currently doing, you would be able to see if a gap exists and what areas you should place more of your time and attention.  On page two of the INFO SHEET there is a wonderful check list for some ideas on how you can achieve representation across all the key words at Tier 1.

Want to tell a great story about your school and don’t know where to begin?  Connect your good work with the Aligned and Integration Model (AIM) for School Mental Health and Well-Being.  

Of course it is not about presenting yourself and your school in the best way possible, it is about supporting students. 

The resources available from School Mental Health ASSIST which, ‘works alongside the Ontario Ministry of Education to support student mental health and well-Being in Ontario schools’ are must reads.  If you are not familiar with the resources please do yourself a favour and check them out.  If it has been awhile since you have reviewed them, re-introduce yourself to the marvellous materials that are available.  

Our students will not achieve, have a sense of well-being and positive mental health without the adults in their lives making this work a priority. Have a look.

Charities & Schools

Having a Process.

interesting ideas, light bulb to indicate a great idea

Interesting Ideas

I know and understand that it is extremely important for a school to be involved in the work of local charities.  The learning that students acquire by giving to others is a key part of any curriculum.  The positive feelings and acknowledgement you receive as a school for giving back cannot be measured, but is certainly felt when the school rallies around a great cause. 

A lot of organizations have committee members, volunteers and employees that create materials for schools in order to promote their charity.  Some of these are classroom activities, materials for the students or events that can be run to show school spirit and bring awareness of the need. 

As a school you may have particular causes that are near and dear to your heart because there is a direct connection to a child or family at your school.  With a large staff, it is difficult to find someone on staff that has not been impacted by an illness or event in their lives or to their loved ones or family.  By their very nature, those in education are very giving people.

For the purpose of this blog I am writing about fundraisers that involve the school where 100% of the donations are passed forward to the organization.  There are other school fundraisers where families participate in an event for the school, or purchase food, spirit wear clothing etc where the funds remain with the school or remain with the parent run School Council.

Early in my administration career I moved to a school as the Principal where there was a special event-fundraiser for charity each month.  Every month a notice would go home to parents from the school about how funds could be given to a particular organization for that month.  Therefore, in total, 10 different organizations were provided access to our community through our school.

Each event and every charity had a story.  It might have been a student from the past and the school continued to work with the organization.  I came to understand that over time it had grown to the point where every month was designated as a special event/charity month. I was provided with a calendar when I arrived.

As I was doing my entry plan into the school I did hear from parents, and staff about this.  It was almost a ‘undiscussable’ as most people were uncomfortable bringing it up and not wanting to look uncaring.  They did want me to hear their concerns and had some difficulty finding the right words.

The loudest voices I heard were from the parents.  They felt pressure because it was supported and run through the school and they wanted to assist because their children were watching and listening to the attention that was given each month.  Many families spoke about how they have their own charitable donation plan as a family.  They were good people who wanted to assist, and were in a position where they could, they just really felt uncomfortable with ‘so many from the school’.

I also heard from staff who felt the burden of promotion, collection and discussion each month.   Since many of the organizations had activities or events, they felt it was taking away from classroom instruction. They became tired during the year, as one event ended and another was about to begin.  Staff that had been at the school the longest were the ones that were looking for change.

The fundraising initiatives were strongest at the beginning of the year and by the end of the year the total dollars collected showed a noticeable drop.

I heard from others that were proud of the school’s reputation of caring so deeply for those that required support.  Some felt it was the essence of the school.

So, how do you still participate in such a valuable endeavour?  How can you show your community that you understand there is a responsibility to the community and our student’s learning?  How do we model to the students that we are here to ‘make a difference’ by giving to others when we are in the position to do so?  

And, at the same time (the power of ‘and’) not step over the line when it simply becomes too much.

It was a hard task to pull back on those habits and traditions that had become established.  You can probably imagine the investment in some of the events, the connection to some of the organizations and how difficult those conversations became when in the second year we cut the number of school charitable events in half.  We shared with families our plan, still encouraged families to participate as a family as they wished, however, using the rationale of classroom time and connection to our school at the current time, we would be moving forward with this new plan for the year.

When I moved on and had the opportunity to open a new school I was not going to have a repeat of this.  As I have discussed in previous blogs, it was the use of our school mantra, “Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’ that provided us with the rationale, and purpose behind our decisions.

We were only going to do three.  If the School Council wanted to organize an event for charity they were welcomed to do this, as it was their initiative.  In my time at the school, our council only did events to supplement the finances of the school.  The school itself, however was only going to do three in a year and they were going to connect directly to our mantra.

And the three we were going to do would be done in a spectacular fashion.  We involved the entire community, and all classrooms because they were special events done one each term.

The three events were organized as this:

One event that was connected to the mantra section, ‘Work Hard’.

One that was ‘Be Nice’ and a third, ‘Make a Difference’.

It is easy to see how our partners in the charitable organizations could work with these descriptors and as a school it was another way for us to connect with students and families the importance of the wording in our mantra.

For example, the first major event in the year was right near the beginning and was done under the description of ‘Work Hard’.  In my time at the school this event has been the Terry Fox Run/Walk for cancer research.  Students learned all about Terry’s story through the additional lens of ‘Work Hard’. As an entire school event we were able to incorporate assemblies, classroom lessons and incentives while students new to us learned about the importance of working hard.  Senior students were partnered with our youngest students and our entire community was able to witness our students dressed in their red and white to bring awareness to this cause.

Senior Students Participating in our Terry Fox Event with Little Buddies

We would have another event in the middle of the year targeting a different charity tied to our mantra piece of ‘Be Nice’ and a third and final one at the end of the year to ‘make a difference’.

In my final year at the school:

Work Hard…Terry Fox Run/Walk for Cancer Research, 

Be Nice … the Halton Learning Foundation to support students and families in our own community, and

Make a Difference, Jump Rope for Heart for the Ontario Heart and Stroke Foundation

Each year we would have what is called a School Directions Meeting to review with staff the three events we held and what should/could be done for the following year. 

We felt this meeting process was transparent and it was open to all staff.  We invited all staff to attend and share their ideas.  As the meeting was advertised well in advance staff knew they were coming to participate in a process to select our three events for the following year.  Staff were able to participate in a facilitated discussion and the problem solving and selecting that would need to occur in order for us to come down to our final three.  This was an opportunity for me to share with staff how to facilitate this kind of discussion where a decision was needed to be made while valuing differing view points. Every year we had changes and over the course of the time the school has been in operation a wide variety of charitable organizations have been supported by staff, students and families.

This process also allowed us to have something in place when an idea or need was brought to us in the middle of the year.  Also as new staff members were hired, they brought ideas from previous schools and wanted to get something up and running in their new location.  We were able to describe our School Directions Meeting and that a process was in place.  Remember, process is your friend!

If a community member suggested a charity event, or donation activity for the school we were able to provide the same explanation and offer them the opportunity to provide us with materials to be shared.  Or, they could approach the School Council at a regular meeting to share.

If a cold call came into the office from the hard working people that work with local charities we were able to provide them with an answer right away and the process to provide them hope that the answer of yes may come in the future.  Many organizations appreciated our honesty and transparency and congratulated us on having something connected to our school mantra that made sense. 

Connecting your school, staff, students and families to charitable organizations by holding school events is a great way to showcase your school and illustrate to students that we live in a time when those that are able should assist those in need.  The individual stories of the families in your community are varied. Striking a balance is a difficult task.

Here is another ‘Interesting Idea’ of how you can use your school mantra to assist you with your communication and decision making in this area.

Starting a Movement

Interesting Ideas

I wanted to do something slightly different this week in my blog.  I want to promote a book and illustrate how this books aligns with the important work we did at our school in regards to building and maintaining our positive school culture for staff, students and families.

The book is Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck.  It was published in 2015 by Solution Tree Press and I highly recommend it to the readers of this blog.

The book delivers on its promise, printed on the back cover,

“Educators will:

  • Learn to express, clarify, and align their beliefs so that they are meaningful to teachers, staff, and other stakeholders
  • Create maximum buy-in among all members of the school community
  • Use the authors’ authentic alignment model to help keep their actions aligned to their schools’ mission and vision
  • Reinforce the researched, results proven PLC within their school culture”

It is time for you to take a close look at your school’s mission statement.  If it is working for you and you feel that it is well established, then at least look at the benefits of working with staff, students and the community to develop a school mantra.  This book with help with this process.  Your leadership will receive a major positive boost by doing this important work with your school.  The outcome of this work will impact many aspects of your school culture.

Our school started in September of 2015 and the book was published the same year.  I did not have a copy of the book prior to the school opening so it is after the fact that I noticed the connections. 

Prior to the school opening I had already used the saying “Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’ at other schools where I had been the principal.  Those other schools had a mission statement, created before my arrival.  So like many of you, I inherited a mission statement. There is an interesting discussion in the book about existing school mission statements and if they are known, utilized, understood or believed.  This particular section of the book will allow you to have a really critical look at your school’s mission statement.  

I didn’t realize it at the time, but by adding that saying into those schools on top of the mission statement, I was doing something that the authors share as a really positive action.  And it is not just the saying itself, it is the process and the actions taken in order to develop the saying.  Most importantly it is what  you do with the saying once established.  Don’t allow it to simply be writing on the letterhead.

Now is the time to reexamine your mission statement and the authors provide a process for doing just that. 

Although I did not have a copy of the book, I feel I had something better in place prior to the school opening and that was the guidance and mentorship and friendship of one of the authors, Tom Hierck.  With Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference established in my mind to share with staff I had long conversations with Tom about bringing something ready made or developing it with the staff in the first year of the school.  I was put in a tough spot in a sense because the school needed to exist on line, on paper and in communication with the community prior to the bricks and mortar being in place.  The school officially started without staff in a sense. The school also opened under teacher sanctions and I was not able to have access to the staff to do this planning work.  

The saying was discussed with staff, and the rationale provided.  I started to use the phrase when visiting the students that would become Boyne students.  From the first time I met students, they heard, ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’.  At parent evenings prior to school construction, families were meeting me, learning about my vision and plans, and hearing, ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’. In a presentation for prospective staff interested in beginning this new school journey with me, they heard, ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’. 

In all honesty it would have been difficult if staff were not in agreement or if they wanted to develop something right from the start.  It would have been a hard conversation for someone to speak up and say we should have something new that I had not used before.  I believe I was open and transparent in that work, and have come to understand through their acceptance, adoption and love for our saying that they are happy with the results.  Students and families continue to comment positively as well.

So for this blog I will be sharing key quotes from an important chapter in the book and reflecting on the quote with practical, real life examples of the work in action.

I have been using the term ‘saying’ and ‘mission statement’ in the first part of this blog. In fact what we have according to the authors is a school mantra. ‘Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference’ is not a mission statement but in fact a mantra based on our mission, vision, values and goals.  It is longer in length than Williams and Hierck would suggest for a mantra but I’ll get to that later.

I want to introduce you to Chapter 3 in the book, entitled Exploring: The Why

‘the Why, is the process of examining your fundamental purpose and core beliefs.  Your goal is to capture the essence of your school’s mission in a guiding mantra to help strengthen that mission’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.55)

All the things we do at the school connect to our mantra.  Our commitments to each other come from these three statements.  Our classrooms begin the year by using Significant 72 (a previous blog) and developing with students how we are going to be a community by illustrating working hard, being nice and making a difference for ourselves and others.

Consider your existing school mission statement…

‘We propose taking one small and powerful additional step in this process: extract a non-negotiable ideal and distill it into a three to five work expression known as your guiding school mantra. Develop a mantra that captures the essence of your school’s mission in a concise and repeatable way.’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.62)

So all this time I may have felt we had our school mission statement when in fact we had our school mantra. It is longer than the 3-5 word suggestion, however its simplicity makes it stick.  The three aspects of the mantra allow us to use each part separately and all together.  I still see it as concise and definitely repeatable.

‘Schools should identify the fundamental purpose, then use that purpose as the lens through which to guide decisions. We know it works for some schools, but often the outcome is a product; the mission statement.  We rarely see a unifying force that empowers educators to examine, clarify, and align every aspect of the school.’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.56)

‘Because the typical mission statement rarely serves as a guide to inform your choices, behaviours, and decisions, it is, in essence, ‘fluff’. When you consider the time spent creating a mission statement versus the fact that its ideals seldom trickle down to the daily work of teachers and leaders, it’s easy to understand the cynicism that arises.’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.58)

There are times when we need to support students and some of the choices they make.  We would use our mantra continually. Some students need a reminder conversation from staff about how we were going to work together and how the adults can support them with their lagging skills.  Their troubles began with a situation where they were not working hard or not being nice.  A conversation out of class or in the office area would start there.  They are removed from their peers in order to get support because they are not working hard or not being nice.  Now that we have that as a starting point, what are we going to do to go back to the situation and make a difference for yourself and others and how can we help you?

‘Yet in almost every instance when we ask staff members to identify agreed-on ideals around which the entire school rallies, to identify a non-negotiable idea that guides the daily work of their school, to state the agreed-on purpose that serves to both compass and guide for every important decision made on campus, we almost never see agreement on what that guide is’.

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.56-57)

‘the conversation turns to the school mission statement-the statement that everyone knows exists but no one can connect to the daily work of teaching, learning, and leading’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.57)

‘The stated mission should permeate every aspect fo school life.  It should serve as your school’s rallying cry and ultimate litmus test to determine what is best for improved student learning; you should not view it as an opportunity for positive public relations that eventually fades into obscurity’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.57)

Every classroom, and every student is involved in the process at the start of the year and then monthly check ins (Significant 72) about our commitments to each other.  Kindergarten students are able to share with staff what it looks like and sounds like to work hard and be nice.  During nutrition breaks when we are eating in our classrooms prior to going outside, grade eight students are able to share what this non instructional time looks like using ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’.  Our School Council of parents are able to create their meeting norms using ‘Work Hard’ ‘Be Nice’, ‘Make a Difference’. In the gymnasium, students are able to articulate the mantra. 

An interesting aspect of the chapter comes later when Williams and Hierck offer a caution. They guide you and want you to avoid something they call ’t-shirting’. 

‘It means you place more emphasis on slogans for t-shirts, lanyards, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and banners than on how your statements actually guide instructional and assessment practices and interventions.  In our experience, few can articulate how their statement explicitly manifests itself in daily work’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.59)

To be honest we have t-shirts for staff, and the mantra is on the walls, but it is so much more than wallpaper.  Our interventions program named WIN (Whatever I Need) is driven by making a difference, it is in Significant 72 (previous blog), establishing our agreements (previous blog), in report cards learning skills(previous blog), in our graduation ceremony(previous blog), in Kindergarten celebrations, and in our fundraising initiatives.  An event does not occur, a report is not written without using the lens of our mantra. 

We got this!

‘Ideally, your mission statement would permeate everything you do at school – embedded in your school’s culture, committed to memory, modelled, and intrinsic to daily life’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.62)

‘It can be a short, energy-infused statement around which your school organizes; it defines what you are and guides all internal decisions.  Further, it’s a powerful chant that everyone inside your school can instantly understand, recognize, and repeat-a constant reminder of what you can expect from each other.’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.62)

At assemblies I would often begin the mantra and only have to say ‘Work Hard’ before the students would complete the phrase in unison.  We have yearly student and parent surveys and we are able to insert our own questions at the end in order to get specific data or feedback.  We have inserted the statement and asked participants in the survey to complete the phrase, ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, ….”  98% of our students completing the survey were able to answer correctly, our parent responses were not quite as high but still a large majority or our parent community were aware of our mantra.

Hopefully, I have been able to share with you the power of having a school mantra.  Not only the development process is important to the school culture, but the continuation of a positive school culture is predicated on having common expectations that everyone, like Williams and Hierck write, ‘instantly understand, recognize, and repeat-a constant reminder of what you can expect from each other’ (p. 62)

So I leave you with two thoughts.  The first, do your staff, students and community know your mission statement?  The authors make a terrific point,

“We often ask our workshop participants to share their schools’ mission statements from memory.  What follows is often a complete loss of eye contact, uncomfortable shifting in chairs, the sudden emergency cell phone call, the impromptu bathroom break, the nervous laughter-all clear signs that people don’t know’

Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck (p.57)

And finally, check out Starting a Movement: Building Culture From The Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck. On page 65 look at ‘Creating Your Guiding School Mantra: The Tip of the Iceberg’ 

Do this exercise!

Re-culture if it is needed, rebrand with a mantra. It is so beneficial for students, staff, families and for your leadership.

Cell Phones at School

One School’s Story

Interesting Ideas

We had a problem with cell phones at our school!  

I want to share one school’s story on how we worked with students, staff and families to address the issue.  

I will start by saying we are an elementary school so our solutions are based on one thousand plus students in Kindergarten to grade 8. 

While walking in the hallway it was not uncommon to see someone walking with their head down and staring into a screen.  Or walking past a classroom and glancing inside to see someone in a group of students with their heads in their phones. Or off to the side of the room while everyone was working, on their own, on their phone.  And in all of these examples I am speaking about the adults in the building. Adults on their phones when working with/for students.  Not okay.

How we discussed this and solved this as a staff professionally and respectfully is going to be the topic of a future blog.  I’m sharing this as a bit of a tease because in this blog I want to share how we encouraged proper technology use by students in our school.

We were a BYOD school (Bring Your Own Device).  This was especially important in our first few years when our student population was high and our number of school owned devices was still low.  Senior students were invited to bring their own device to the school to use in their classrooms.  It was not a requirement.  We made sure families understood we always had technology available for student use.  We did not want students going home and saying they had to have technology for school!

Letting students use their own device did really help everyone at the beginning.  Everyone likes using their own devices for comfort and ease.  We know how to navigate our own tools and where we keep files and work.  We were confident that done properly, and with student voice and family input we could create a process that would work.  We wanted it to work, technology is an important tool and part of the learning process includes how students use technology effectively, properly and respectfully.

We followed all the board issued mandates with families about loss, theft and damage.  We gathered all the required paperwork and then started on our journey with students to formulate how this was all going to be operationalized.

Staff created schedules in order to share the technology we had on hand.  Most importantly the staff developed an understanding that the technology is a tool to be used by students when needed and really limited the amount of time where every child needed a device at the same time. We have moved way past a time when all students are using the same program at the same time, in the same way and instead allow students’ choice in how they demonstrate their learning. With a heavy emphasis on differentiated instruction and student choice, gone are the days when you would see the entire class in a computer lab or each child at a workstation.  Computers, and tablets are in the classroom available to students to use as needed.  Also available to students is their own device if required.  So how do we monitor the proper use of these powerful tools?

I can remember very early in my administration career, when cell phones were just becoming a thing you would see at school.  They were considered a distraction, a nuisance and we banned them.  We could not understand why any elementary student would need a phone at school if there were pay phones and office phones.

We now have a better understanding of the power of the devices in student hands.  It is not the cell phone itself that is the issue, it is what the cell phone is being used to do.  Parents provide or allow cell phones for their children for many reasons. It is important for our families to know that when at school the cell phone is being used in a responsible and respectful way. Cell phones are a wonderful tool that when used well, and used properly can and should be a learning tool that students learn to use appropriately. They are not going away.

Listening to student voice was always a key strategy in our school and how we were going to use technology in our school was another opportunity to hear from students.  Using our school motto of ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’ we developed our agreements.  These were developed with our classes, shared with everyone and are reinforced with students multiple times in the year (Significant 72 opportunity).  You will see that students did come up with agreements around non-instructional time as well as instructional time. A copy of the poster that hangs in each room is shared with you here.

We noticed on line that schools could purchase locking mini cabinets that could be installed in classrooms so schools could secure cell phones when students entered a classroom. As an elementary school we went ‘low tech’ and purchased for each classroom a numbered pocket chart.  Students were assigned a number based on their class list and when students entered the room for their class period they were asked to place their cell phones in their corresponding pocket.  The pocket chart was hung in a safe area of the classroom, i.e., a corner behind the teacher’s desk.  There, the cell phone would remain until the end of class or until the teacher had a section of the lesson where students could use their own device.  One big issue this solved was that washroom visits, quick trips to the hallway or back to their lockers did not include checking in with their cell phone.  At the end of class the teachers would monitor the retrieval of the cell phones based on numbers, seat locations etc.

If they did not place a cell phone in the pocket chart it was because of one of three reasons

  1. They do not have a cell phone, or they did not bring it to school that day
  2. Their cell phone was not brought to class and instead is locked safely in their locker
  3. It is in their bag, or backpack in class and will not be seen or brought out during the class, they are planning on using the technology provided within the class

When teachers provided class time for student work that could involve the use of technology a ‘Tech Time’ poster was placed on the board at the front of the class and announced to the class.  At this point students could retrieve their cell phones and use them if they wished. A simple visual, you see the sign, it is okay to use the technology in the room including your own device.

We did not have any difficulties with this process.  Students were respectful of others’ property and I believe this was all because of the preliminary work and relationship building done by our staff before starting, during lessons and discussed fairly regularly.  As well, students were part of the process to develop the plan.

What did we do if the agreements were not followed?

If teachers saw a student breaking an agreement they would ask for the cell phone and keep it with them until the end of class.  At the end of class they would ask a colleague to assist them with any responsibilities they may have so they could have time with the student.  A conversation would take place putting the onus on the student to talk about the commitment and why the phone was taken.  After a conversation the student had their phone returned.

The expectations were reinforced during the conversation and it was shared that the next time would involve a learning exercise done on their free time.  Students were ask to write or assisted in writing, using the common expectations in order to explain what they had done, what they should have done and what they would do next time (simple three paragraphs).  Depending on the situation, the teacher would date this and keep it on file or decide to have the assignment taken home by the child and have it signed by a parent.  

The parent would be reading something written by their child about the expectations in the classroom.  It was not a formal letter or email from the teacher or school. Written from the child’s perspective, it showed understanding of the expectations and always received great support from the family.  

And finally, if necessary, if difficulties still remained the teacher would give the cell phone to me and I would place it in the school safe.  We asked the child to explain to their parent why this had to occur and I would return the cell phone once I was able to have a phone call or face to face meeting with the parent.  At the end of the day I would contact the families so they were aware we had their personal property in our school safe.  Often parents would drive to the school in order to pick up their child at the end of the day and this provided an opportunity for parent, child and myself to meet.  These conversations were easy to facilitate because the child knew the expectations.  They knew the order of the consequences, and had already done a parent letter. In six years at the school we did not have a child repeat the cell phone in the safe process.

Parents were appreciative because it was all carried out with respect and transparency.  We never shamed the child because we all wanted the same outcome.  We want our students to use the technology.  The parents and the school just want the technology used in the proper way. Students are not sneaking glances at their phone to do school research. 

Once parents found out how the child was using the phone in the school we were able to have a great conversation about the use of technology in schools.  The conversation often turned to why this elementary aged child had the phone to begin with and that the school did have the  ability to supply technology.

Over time we purchased enough technology for student use that the need to bring in their own device was not as necessary, and we remained a BYOD school.  Students still like to bring in their cell phones.  We are okay with that, because of the learning that is involved in creating our agreements as a community and we value the importance of understanding the proper use of technology while at school.  A key lesson even for the adults!

Teacher Evaluation=Leadership

Interesting Ideas

I wanted to write this week about the Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA) process and share with a you a few Interesting Ideas as you make your way through your evaluations this year.  

No matter where you are located or what your process is for teacher evaluation in your district I imagine we share enough similarities that these Interesting Ideas should resonate with you.

Based on the size of your school and the cycle that is employed there could be years where you have many evaluations to carry out.  In my time there were extremely busy years and years where the cycle meant there were less.  Now, always being in large schools still meant that even quieter years still came with many teacher evaluations. It would be a shame if your teachers did not get the best from the process or from you during a year that there were many evaluations. 

While you may have countless evaluations to carry out, for the experienced teacher, they are going through the process once every 5 years in Ontario. Administrators transfer schools and teachers move schools, therefore it is most likely that the evaluations you will be doing this year are the only time you will conduct the evaluation process with those individual teachers. For that reason I always tried to put time and energy into the process regardless of the number I needed to carry out in a year.

In order to motivate me to do the best that I could do for my teachers, my self talk revolved around this need to do it well since the process is once every five year.  I wanted to give the evaluation my full attention and for the teacher create a supportive process that would strengthen their teaching and our relationship.

There is a document for you to consider. Supporting the Ontario Leadership Strategy: Principals Want to Know, Issue #19 from April of 2012. That particular issue was called Annual Learning Plans and Teacher Performance Appraisal. It is now dated in a sense, but contains lots of still relevant information on this topic.

What could be considered a managerial task by some, really is a leadership opportunity of us all. In the document a question is raised, ‘How can I augment the learning culture of my school by effectively engaging teachers in their Annual Learning Plans (ALP) and Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA)?” 

What a great question.

The answer is provided in the section of the document titled ‘Five Tips for Success’

  1. Embed learning focused conversations in your daily interactions with teachers
  2. Collaborate with teachers
  3. Build coherence between ALP/TPA and other school, board and ministry initiatives and priorities
  4. Align professional learning and resources with teachers’ ALPs (a huge part of my previous blog)

And, finally the focus of this blog

5)   Use the TPA as a growth-oriented opportunity

Remember, for each teacher it is once every five years!

The TPA provides you with an opportunity to really dig deep, to ask important questions and provide the support requested from your teachers.  All along you have been having conversations, providing support, being in classrooms, and seeing teachers in action daily. The TPA process allows you to slow down (as much as an administrator can) and really bring value to the experience.  This formal process allows you to peel back some layers and go much deeper.

First off I go to the teachers’ classroom.  I go to their environment.  I don’t conduct the meetings in my office.  In their classroom is where they make the magic, it is where all their resources and materials are kept.  Comfort will be increased if I go to them.

I ask permission to review their professional resources on my time, not their time.  If they can leave a ‘resource section’ of a table or desk for me I can come and go and pick up a binder or notebook to look at on my own time, and not waste valuable discussion time flipping through their resources with them present.  I should be able to tell what is happening in practice when reviewing each resource!  Their parent communication binder, their short and long range plans, their connections to the curriculum, their assessment and evaluation binder, their occasional teacher resource binder etc, etc.  If I have questions, I place the question on a post it note and discuss it with the teacher when we are together.  I can take my time, look deeply at the work they are doing, and save them time by not having to explain what in many cases is self explanatory.

The same review process is used for online resources.  I ask permission for things to be shared with me so I can review and take notes during times when we are not together.

When we do get together we can have a targeted discussion about their annual learning plan, what I saw in their resources, the notes from my classroom observation and provide support and advice that is forward thinking feedback. Feed forward, not feed back!

The most important outcomes for our time together include acknowledging the great work they are doing; filling their bucket; discussing their goals; and asking how I can help. 

Now is an important time to clarify this is a completely different process if the teacher is struggling and may receive an unsatisfactory evaluation. I will say that if you are waiting for the formal TPA process in order to get into the classroom to coach, model, support and have difficult conversations about their commitment or performance then you are not doing what is expected of you. You cannot wait for those conversations, the students in those classes and the families of those students are trusting in you that a qualified dedicated professional is working each day.

The comments I have been making about the collaborative TPA process with administration and teacher is for the large percentage of our educators that are doing wonderful work.

The 5 domains in the Ontario Teacher Performance Appraisal come from the Ontario College of Teachers’ Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession.  The five domains are:

  • Commitment to Students and Student Learning
  • Professional Knowledge
  • Professional Practice
  • Leadership in Learning Communities and
  • Ongoing Professional Learning

After the formal classroom visit(s) I view our post observation discussion as having two areas of focus.  The first area of focus revolves around their view of the lesson, their comments, corrections, next steps etc as well as my impressions.  This conversation revolves around the first three domains listed above.  While viewing the teacher working with students in a classroom an administrator is able to find evidence of commitment to students and student learning, professional knowledge and practice.  Goal setting and next steps are generated based on this classroom aspect and as an administrator I provide my support for the growth of the teacher in this regard.

The second area of focus stems from the final two domains that cannot be gleaned from a classroom visit, but instead, require a rich conversation with lots of questions.  Leadership in Learning Communities and Ongoing Professional Learning are not seen during a classroom visit.  It is during this second part of the conversation that the relationship is strengthened, support is provided for areas identified, and you really get to know your staff members’ goals, dreams and wishes.  This conversation has been an important beginning conversation for those staff members that have left the classroom to move towards positions at a board, or system level and/or to move into the administration role.

The Ontario College of Teachers have many amazing resources and documents.  One in particular that has assisted me with these final two domains of the TPA process is the OCT Professional Learning Framework for the Teaching Profession June 2016.  In the middle of this resource is a placemat about the Conceptual Framework for Ongoing Professional Learning.  Using this placemat as the basis for our conversation, together we are able to see potential pathways for more learning.  Opportunities such as: Community and Social Justice Experiences, Professional Inquiry, Curriculum Design, Development and Assessment, Research and Scholarship provide a potential road map of considerations for your teachers.

The entire Teacher Performance Appraisal process is a tremendous opportunity for you to appreciate and acknowledge your teachers.  It is a chance to bucket fill and provide a document that they can magnet. on their refrigerator to share with loved ones.  

Five years!  They are deserving of positive comments that for a moment in time make all the hard work worthwhile.

Think of the conversations you can have. Think what you can learn about your staffs’ fabulous teaching practices.  Think about how you can motivate and appreciate.  Think about how you can influence. Think about how you can direct and give support.

It does take work on your part.  Yes, there are so many other things that need to be done with your time.  It is a necessary process, a management piece that can have a huge impact on your relationships and culture.  Take a deep breath, convince yourself that it is an important aspect that requires your best attention.  Done well, it provides so many benefits.

References (Placemat)

Ontario College of Teachers. (2006). The ethical standards for the teaching profession. Toronto, ON: Author. 

Ontario College of Teachers. (2006). The standards of practice for the teaching profession. Toronto, ON: Author. 

RRO 176/10. Teachers’ Qualifications Regulation of the Ontario College of Teachers Act

References (Supporting the Ontario Leadership Strategy)

Robinson, Viviane (2007). The impact of leadership on student  outcomes: Making sense of the evidence. Melbourne: Australian  Council for Educational Research  

Stronge, J. and P. Tucker (2003). Handbook on Teacher Evaluation:  Assessing and Improving Performance. Eye on Education  Publications  

© Queens Printer for Ontario, 2010 ISSN # 1923-9653 (Online)

Never Stop Being A Teacher

Interesting Ideas

This week I wanted to share with you some resource ideas and a simple point for you to consider that will assist you with your work building climate and culture in your school.  It is a leadership move that will aid your teachers, benefit your students and give you a huge pat on the back for a job well done.

Never stop being a teacher.  It sounds simple enough, however we can often get swallowed up by the management aspects of the administrator role and lose touch with our past.  And in the past you were a great teacher.  Not all great teachers become administrators, but all administrators are/were great teachers.

It is really satisfying as a leader to see your influence find its way into the classroom.  No longer being a teacher in the classroom is one of the most difficult aspects to give up when moving into an administrator role, but it doesn’t have to be.  It is still a wonderful feeling to know you never stop being a teacher and you can continue to grow and develop your staff long after you have left the classroom.

I am not speaking about interacting with students.  It is obvious that we continue to get into classrooms, support students, read with them, participate in their group work and get down on the carpet with our youngest learners.  I am writing this week about being a teacher to staff.

Every opportunity I had to work with staff during staff meetings, learning meetings, divisional meetings, professional activity days etc I made sure I was modelling activities that can be used in the classroom by the teachers with their students.  Each piece of content that needed to be shared, presented or read I would attach the ‘product’ or outcome of the content with a ‘process’ or teaching strategy to interact with the content.

Any time you have your staff in front of you it is an opportunity for you to model an activity while you present the content.  I would name the activity or process, I would write it on a poster or in a digital presentation and have the staff acquire the needed information by activating and applying a process.  My agenda for the meetings would always include two columns, one column for the content and one column for the activity or process I was going to share.  

There are many famous facilitation techniques such as ‘think, pair share’, ‘3A’s plus 1’ ‘Just Like Me’, ‘3,2,1’ but many more out there that can be used with your staff so they are getting the content of the meeting and also a collaborative activity that they can use with their students.  I also find time at the end of the activity to have staff turn and talk with others about how they would use the strategy, how they would adapt it for the age and stage of their children and in which content areas.  Could they give an example of how they will use the strategy in the coming days?

As a leader, it is incredibly gratifying to find evidence of the activity done at a meeting in a classroom with students later in the week.  Or having staff share with you, ‘hey, I used that strategy you showed us on Monday with my students today’

While teaching the principal qualification course I make sure I deliver the content in a variety of ways and each time we have a grouping activity I share with the candidates a process or protocol while interacting with the content.  When the activity is done we speak about where you would use the process in the future and they begin to understand that this modelling is important with staff, during parent council meetings, learning days etc.  

Never, ever miss the opportunity to share great instructional practices when you are learning with your staff.  It pays huge dividends when you inject some life into your meetings with effective, interactive learning strategies that can be taken away and used with students.

You can find lots of great resources on group activities in categories such as:  Activities for Getting Started, Activities for Information Processing, Activities for Generating Ideas, Strategies for Dialogue and Discussion  I have found the work of Bruce Wellman, Laura Lipton, to be very helpful with lots of ideas, activities and protocols to use.  A book that has caught my attention and has many ideas for facilitating is Crafting Your Message: Tips and Tricks for Educators to Deliver Perfect Presentations by Tammy Heflebower with Jan K. Hoegh.  It is available through Solution Tree.  Send me a message if you need any assistance locating the resource.

As always I love hearing from you when you have taken one of my “Interesting Ideas” and made it your own.  I’m honoured that you continue to read, use some of the ideas and then let me know.  Keep the messages coming.

Support Your Staff

Interesting Ideas

Administrators, you are presented with an opportunity each year to make a profound impact on your staff and school climate. Why not utilize something that is a must do task and turn it into a school culture accelerator?

As part of the Teacher Performance Appraisal process teachers are asked to set goals using a document named the Annual Learning Plan (ALP).  I imagine in many districts some form of goal setting is done with, done to or done by teachers in order to move forward in their professional development.

What an amazing opportunity to assist your teachers, lead by influencing and move staff toward the desired practices and learning that connect with the school and the system goals. Do you use this opportunity or is it a ‘task’ that gets little attention?

And, yes, while the ALP is a teacher document and they drive the decision about what their learning goals are going to be for the year, there are some steps you can do as a leader to improve this process for your teachers and most importantly improve the conditions for your learners in the building.  As a leader you do have a role.

Start by being really honest with yourself about this aspect.  What does this annual expectation look like in your school?  What is the buy in by staff?  Do you see high quality, stretch goals by your teachers?  Do teachers put thought and effort into this process or is it just ‘get it done’? Do they recycle the same goal year after year because no one ever discusses it with them? Do you read their goals at all? And if you see them what do you do with them?

Effective Schools researcher Kyla Wahlstrom (2010) has stated that there are three high powered practices that really assist leaders in their buildings.   These are the ‘difference makers’.  

  1. “ focusing the school on goals and expectations for student achievement”
  2. “ creating structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate”

And the big one in relation to this blog

3. “keeping track of teachers’ professional development needs”

So once again, ask yourself do you know the pd needs of your teachers?  Do the needs you identify come from them or put upon them?

The buy-in for any goal is critical. It is really difficult to accomplish someone else’s goal, or a goal that is suggested to you during a performance review.  Even if it is good for us.  But a goal created by the practitioner themselves is a really successful start.  ‘If you can name it, you can tame it!”  How do you get your staff to start to goal set in areas of need or in relation to school and district goals?

It starts with you investing in their goals.

There is such a strong connection between leading and learning.  My leadership stance has always been that am going to support our people to the best of my ability in the attainment of their described learning needs.  News travels fast. And when teachers know that you are supportive and involved, the quality of the goals and the involvement of the teachers escalates.  

The Ontario Leadership Framework defines leadership as “the exercise of influence on organizational members and diverse stakeholders toward the identification and achievement of the organization’s vision and goals.”  A goal setting process involving both the administrator and the teacher checks off so many ‘boxes’ within the leadership framework.  Working with the teacher on their self created goal is all about ‘setting directions’, ‘building relationships and developing people’, ‘developing the organization to support desired practices’, ‘improving the instructional program’ and ‘securing accountability’.  Working alongside your teachers, supporting them in the achievement of their goals is a high leverage leadership practice.

On-going learning is so important.  Our very best teachers, every year, find ‘something’ that they want to add to their program or their practice.  They are constantly refining what they do and how they do it.  I want staff that work hard at being effective and investing in themselves in order to support the students that are continuing to change and develop.  We need our teachers asking, ‘What do I need to learn?’ And then set goals that lead them on a journey of improvement.

Here is what I did…

I made the whole process very transparent.  Those that have been with me in the past know that this is coming and each year new staff are introduced to the process.  Their goal setting document, the Annual Learning Plan is due each year by October 30th.  Once they are collected I go through each one and create a large master document indicating the goals for every one of my teachers on staff. The document has their name with a brief description of their goal.  I share with the staff during a learning session a photo of the document with names crossed out or get the permission of a few staff to share a section of the document with everyone so they can see it exists.  It looks something like this…

Since our goal setting document is done electronically, it is easy for me to go in one at a time and copy and paste their goal beside their name.  I highlight any key initiatives such as collaborative problem solving, math instruction, inquiry, technology, communication with families, documentation etc and look for common themes.  Remember these are goals our staff have selected.  Yes, some have required a conversation.  Ultimately I understand that it is their goal and the collective agreement with the teachers’ union indicates the goal cannot be given to them.  A self created goal based on the professional judgement of the teacher is the intent of this process.  However, that does not mean there cannot be a supportive conversation. I will share with you that without a doubt, the quality of the goals improve when there is a history of involvement, interest and support from the administration.   

With the goals on a master page, it is displayed prominently on the bulletin board in my office. You can begin to look for partnership opportunities.  You can look for book study opportunities.  You can look for professional activity day content, staff meeting learning content etc. When resources came into the school I can check the list and make sure those that are interested in the content are exposed to the opportunity.  When our school board asks for a representative to learn at a session in a train the trainer model in order to come back and share resources and/or practices with others. I know who to ask.  When I am fortunate to receive a new resource through a conference or workshop, after I am finished with it I know who to give it to.  After reading a professional journal or article I know who to share the information with.

In a previous blog I wrote about staff meetings becoming staff learning sessions and this process will allow you to group staff in order to share their learning goals.  What a wonderful opportunity for the leaders on your staff to assist those that are looking to increase their knowledge.  A definite win/win for both the giver and the receiver.

And a big one, it answers the question, ‘why did so and so get to go to, or do that, or get that?’.  They were selected because it is part of their professional growth goals for the year.

I guarantee the quality of the goal setting you will see in your building will improve when you make public your process of reviewing and supporting their goals.  Better goal setting leads to better learning by the adults and stronger connections on staff.  And I don’t have to tell you, this creates a better learning experience for your students.  Many of my blogs discuss school culture and climate.  Consider what this investment of your time, because yes, it takes time, demonstrates to the adults working in the building about what we stand for and what we believe in.  I believe in them, and will support them to become better.

As an administrator I am accustom to looking at others and saying, ‘How can I help?’  This is your opportunity to take something that already exists and invest in your staff.  This is your opportunity to make sure your building is a place of learning for both students and staff. This is your opportunity to bring to the forefront the desired practices and resources you would like to see being used.  This is your opportunity to guide your staff to the most current, relevant and responsive resources.  This is your opportunity to show your love for your people by having their goals acknowledged, supported and accomplished!

Build School Culture With Reporting – Learning Skills

Interesting Ideas

While reading and signing hundreds of reports cards is not always the most pleasurable task for an administrator, reading excellent report cards can and will restore your faith in what happens when excellent educators work their magic with students and families.

I remember spending time in Australia and seeing an elementary report card.  The entire first page was a photograph of the child and organizational information like age, grade, teacher name and school.  On the back side of this first page was a section on work habits and goal setting, prior to page three and four which had all the subject grades and comments.  I always felt this was such a great way to highlight the student, emphasize them as an individual and illustrate to families and the child the importance of their work habits and life skills before showing grades in subject areas.

In Ontario we call this work habits section of the report card “learning skills” and it is also prominently displayed front and centre.  It is a great opportunity for thoughtful, talented educators to illustrate they care for and understand the child and think of them as a unique individual with talents and skills that are noticed and appreciated.  As a leader, emphasizing the importance of assessing and commenting on learning skills will aid in your desire to build and maintain a wonderful school climate.

Assessment is provided in six different learning skills on the report: responsibility, organization, independent work, collaboration, initiative and self regulation.  These six areas of development are so key to student learning that they are placed at the beginning of the report in order to be read first and understood prior to looking at subject grades and comments.  It is not uncommon to hear families say, it is the only section of the report card they truly read and discuss with their child.

Learning skills and work habits are not included in subject grades unless there is a clear link to the achievement of curriculum expectations.  Achievement in subject content areas is based on the knowledge/skills categories and could be the topic of an entire blog as its own discussion.  Let’s just say I am old enough to remember having items such as organization, and responsibility included in my grades and as a teacher including marks for behaviours and skills unrelated to subject content.  I am so glad we now see the error in our ways and keep these two aspects of evaluation separated and discussed on their own as unique important sources of information.

One way to think of the evaluation of learning skills is to consider they are always work in progress.  We have a responsibility as educators to assess and assist!  Since these are life long skills, we should be constantly goal setting with students, helping them develop these traits in order to have full and productive lives.  Therefore we are assessing for and as learning based on the age and stage of the child.  Learning skills should never be consider assessment of learning.  It is never summative.  This work is never done.

If we are going to elevate the importance of these learning skills then students should receive explicit instruction and feedback about these skills.  Students should be involved in co-creating success criteria for each of these learning skills to know exactly what they mean and how they can recognize success for themselves in relation to these skills.  It all starts as a teacher’s responsibility to instruct and assess these skills, and to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate these skills in a context where students understand what is being assessed.  The criteria can be updated and revised into student friendly language as children are given tasks where peer and self assessment are utilized.  Continually working towards self assessment would be an important target in all classrooms.

It is essential to have both process and product assessment during classroom time.  While assessing a subject specific expectation integrate one or more of the learning skills into the assessment.  At the end of the assignment or task, students should receive feedback on both the subject expectations as well as the learning skills on the same rubric or assessment tool.

Setting and monitoring goals within these learning skills is therefore a key role for the teacher. Illustrating to students how this is done is an important focus during teaching and while conferencing with students.  There are numerous ways to create learning skill data for students to use: peer assessment, self assessment, rubrics, teacher observations, checklists, conferencing, descriptive feedback, rating scales (smiley faces)

There is great research on the importance of goal setting for students.  Setting personal goals and monitoring these goals while receiving feedback help students gain a greater understanding of who they are as a learner.  And isn’t that what is is all about?

As far as how the learning skills are written within the report, we have from the Growing Success Document

Teachers should strive to use language that parents will understand and should avoid language that simply repeats the wordings of the curriculum or the achievement chart. The comments should describe in overall terms what students know and can do and should provide parents with personalized, clear, precise, and meaningful feedback. 

~ Growing Success, p. 64

At our school we asked our staff to incorporate ‘Boyne’ language with specific examples of how and when the child demonstrate these skills.  Our school mantra was, “work hard, be nice, make a difference.”  Our staff were asked to connect this wording with the learning skills and make connections on how the child is illustrating our key school beliefs when they, for instance, ‘work hard’ on their organization, with an example that is unique to them.  It is easy to see how the six learning skills fit into our school mantra.  It was lovely to read about and hear parent’s comment about how their child was ‘making a difference’ through their behaviours in school.  

Does your school motto/mantra fit into your assessment of work habits or learning skills?  Build your school culture by including aspects of your mission and vision within your assessment comments.

We asked staff to make sure the comments were individualized with specific evidence.  Therefore the child could speak to the work being referenced or the family may be familiar with the task.  We want the use of the child’s name!  The comments should vary from student to student as they are all unique individuals and this is one part of the report card where that is abundantly clear.  Here is an opportunity to really show the family that you recognize their child as a unique individual with their own talents, needs and attributes.  It would drive me mad when I saw repeated comments used for numerous children in this section of the report.  Yes, a template is beneficial when you are writing numerous reports, but the goals, the activities, the examples and student voice in each must be differentiated.

It goes without saying that it is going to be written using asset language, positively phrased for all students highlighting what they can do, and not what they are not able to do (YET!).  There will be an opportunity to highlight goals for the remainder of the school year and this should be done in a positive, and confident of success manner.

Learning skills provide an excellent showcase for student voice.  And, if student voice is one of your hallmarks in your school,  you say you are going to incorporate student voice, what better place to show this than in the assessment of learning skills? Considering the age and stage of the learners, student voice should be included in the learning skills.  Use quotation marks and have the exact words of the child sharing with their families what they are working towards for the next term.  Making our goals public not only increase our chances of success because they are known, it also provides the opportunity for others to get involved in helping us. (there you go, parent involvement!)

Even if you don’t include direct quotes from the student’s voice in regards to their goals, the making of an action plan is an important growth opportunity and having a student work on it in collaboration with the teacher is another wonderful opportunity to strengthen this important relationship.  Students should be assisted with identifying their own strengths and needs as a learner and how to select the strategies that will assist them.  Throughout the term there should be opportunities for monitoring and discussion.  All of this process can be captured in the learning skills comments and/or shared with families during conferencing.

A comment could be as clear as:  (name) has identified an important goal in the area of independent work, she stated, ‘…….’  This is a wonderful goal for (name) and she will be supported with….in order to reach her goals

The next steps within the learning skills comment can focus on the child’s goals for next term, the teacher’s professional judgment on what is required for future success but must focus on the concept that learning skills are not an after thought, they are continually taught and students are provided with lots of opportunities to know and understand them. Therefore next steps indicate to families that there will be continued attention given to the development of learning skills, and the strategies that will be taught, practiced, and monitored 

So much time is invested in the creation, development, and writing of report cards. Work with your staff to create a document that every one can be proud of, that further supports your school messaging but most importantly a document that will truly benefit your students and their families.