Your School Leadership Team

Interesting Ideas

Who are your leaders?  Who do you ask to assist?  Whose opinion do you want?

One of the topics that often comes up in conversation during principal training is the formation of a leadership team.  People will ask me how I chose the adults that are going to be on an equity lead team, or the math team, or the school effectiveness team, etc.  I’ve heard stories of good people being passed over and then holding a grudge that others were selected ahead of them. They are uncertain of the criteria, and they were never provided with an explanation.

This activity of finding the people to lead and discuss key initiatives at the school is vitally important, because it sends a message to the staff on who is valued. It is imperative that it is done well because you want the right people helping with decisions without causing insult to others.  There is that common analogy that in a school you want the right people on the bus and in reality you want the right people in the right seats on the bus.  

How do new people get an opportunity if roles are historically taken by veteran staff?  What about new people coming to your school from other locations?  What if you do not have the luxury of a large staff and as a smaller school you have the same people always doing the same leadership roles and they are not appropriate or become burned out?

I once had an experienced principal share with a group their leadership team structure.  It was an elementary setting with three key initiatives or pillars in the school (let’s list them as equity/well being, mathematics, literacy).  The principal selected one representative from Kindergarten, one from the primary division, another from junior and finally one staff to represent the intermediates.  As a cross classification chart this would be 12 individuals as a leadership team, responsible to inform others on their team about the work that is being done in these areas. (a different kindergarten staff member in each of equity/well being, mathematics, literacy). How do you pick?  Who are your favourites? Why them and not others?  How do staff now see these educators?  Do you want those that ‘have it’ or those that are going to ‘learn it’?  Isn’t it all about implementation? These decisions have a huge impact on your staff climate and culture. 

My solution was a structure we called School Directions.  It was based on sharing leadership and utilizing the power of the talents in the whole school not in a selected group of individuals. Your staff is filled with many different talents, skills and abilities and the opinions of many need to be shared, welcomed and acknowledged.  Some of your best solutions are found within those that must be invited to share.  Give them this opportunity.

On a fairly regular basis we would have a School Directions meeting.  One Topic-One Hour.  Advertised well in advance, everyone is invited and attendance is based on interest.  

You are planning your professional activity day for the following week, school directions.  

You are planning your assembly for the last day before a holiday, school directions.  

You are sharing your school budget and how it has been allocated, school directions.  

You are sharing new guidelines for the staff in regards to websites, school directions.

You are purchasing math manipulative for a shared cupboard of resources, school directions.

When staff arrive for the meeting, thank them for their time and introduce the topic in more detail.  Attendance is based on interest and it was not uncommon for me to find people in the school in the days before and ask them if they were going to attend.  Depending on the topic there are certain people that I want at the meeting.  Asking them if they plan to attend or suggesting to them that I would love to see them is very different from selecting them to drive the decision or that they represent the entire division or section of the school.  I suggested to many of our aspiring leaders that they should attend the meeting in order to participate in the conversation but also so I could model the running of such a meeting. So yes, behind the scenes I did try to get some key contributors to attend.

School directions was an opportunity for me to listen.  Staff need to know right at the start if they are the decision makers (content in the assembly) or they are consulting (budget allocation) because some topics are not part of their accountability.  However, I want them informed.  If people come to the meeting believing the decisions have already been made and it is not a good use of their time, they will not attend, or worse your leadership will be questioned because you are just giving the appearance of collaboration, when in fact nothing is going to change.  You need to be up front, how much of the decision making process do the staff control?  Explain what will happen after the meeting, provide the rationale.  It was not uncommon to hear me say, ‘I am going to take everything I hear tonight and come back with a decision about the direction we will go.  I need you to help me see things that I do not, or share with me aspects that I may be unaware of and you can shine some light.  But today, you are in a consultative role not a decision making role’.  

Besides providing the background information for the meeting it is important to create together, and review often, the norms and expectations.  Just because we are all in education and work with students we cannot assume that simply putting adults together in a space to share important information or make a decision that everyone is going to get along.  You may need to develop strategies about raising hands, having a ‘talking stick etc.  Always finish with next steps.  WWWH-Who is going to do What When and How.

In the book Radical Candor, Kim Scott shares the strategies of loud and quiet listening.  I really found the concept of ‘loud listening ‘ to be helpful in school directions meetings at the beginning of our hour together.  To be a loud listener is to state ‘a point of view strongly’, ‘it also prevents people from wasting a lot of time trying to figure out what the boss thinks’.  Therefore a sentence starter could be, ‘I’m thinking of (doing this) because…” And then ask for views, counter arguments and other pieces of information that will help with the decision.  If you are open and transparent at the start, respectful of people’s view, you will receive high quality conversation because staff feel safe with you.   But you are ‘on’ because the moment you turn on someone’s idea or allow poor group dynamics the work you are doing to foster this collaborative culture will be ruined.

Big idea.  I did School Directions meetings as much for the modelling and watching of the adult dynamics in the school.  It gave me a very interesting perspective on staff personalities.  It helps build leadership, and forges positive interactions while discussing tough issues.  There is a process and the product in every School Directions meeting.  You must give as much attention and thought to the process (the people) as you do the product (outcome)

We have to trust in our staff that they have a vision of how they want the school to be for the students and the adults that call it home.  Their perspective matters and it gives you an intimate look at where some of them are coming from.  Don’t close yourself off and only welcome the thoughts of a few chosen ones.  This allows you to see the leadership potential in others, because as leaders they will need to learn to work with adults.  You will see your staff interacting with students quite a bit, and  you will see your staff being collegial with each other.  Watching your staff doing the harder work of collaboration is so important to school culture.  I believe our best teachers with students may not be the best leaders of adults.  One hundred percent I believe our best leaders are wonderful with students and staff.  

Find your leaders, cultivate and grow their ability to work with the adults as well as the children.  New administrators say to me all the time that they had no idea when they started in administration that so much of their time would be taken by the adults in and out of the building.  They knew they would be working with and for students, the percentage of time with staff and families, a surprise.

At a school directions meeting I am going to make my thinking visible so staff can see that I am focused and determined to get the best results by utilizing the strengths of the people in the building.  I am showing I am open and transparent as much as I can be.  And I am going to be honest on the decisions that sit completely with me and share as much of the decision making as I can.  It builds leadership in others to see how this is done, managed etc and it is transparent, inclusive and empowers staff to be part of the professional learning community and not just a select few.

What direction are you going to take with you staff?

Getting Things Done

Interesting Ideas

I wanted to share with you training that I have received that made a profound difference in both my personal and professional life.  I truly wish I had done this training much earlier in my career.  

We all want more hours in the day.  I think back to how inefficient I was at the beginning of my leadership journey and all the time and energy spent on just keeping myself organized.  I thought I had a good ‘system’ in place but every once in awhile I would miss deadlines, or miss opportunities for myself or my school.  The stress created by the volume of the work can, at times, be overwhelming. 

Getting Things Done (GTD) is training provided by Crucial Learning (formerly Vital Smarts).  I have provided the link to Getting Things Done at the end of this blog so you can investigate it more thoroughly.

In order to be transparent I will share that I am a licensed trainer with Crucial Learning and GTD is one of the programs that I can provide for individuals, teams and organizations.  I have trained countless individuals in the beauty of GTD in both virtual and face to face training sessions. It is training that has had a huge impact on me and feedback from participants has indicated to me it is a game changer.  I would not train with Crucial Learning if I did not believe in its benefits to others.  I welcome any inquiries about how we can get you and your team trained in this career changing, life changing program.

It is based on the New York Times bestseller, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

For most of us we don’t need more things to do. The training is not about addition.  It is not about getting more things done, it is about efficiency and how to properly engage with the items that do take your time and create time pressure stress.  You will learn to work more effectively with all the inputs that come to you and not miss important items.  The training will free up your mind to allow it to do what it does best, be creative, problem solve, work on relationships, plan and dream. Your thoughts will be clearer when not trying to remember what needs to be done and therefore, decrease the stress of trying to continually keep your commitments straight.  A common training phrase is, ‘get it out of your head and into a trusted system” And the gold standard phrase that summarizes the training nicely is, ‘your mind is for having ideas not holding them.”

Want to get your inbox to zero? GTD

Do you use your calendar effectively? Does it contain the right items?   GTD

How many of your next steps rely on someone else to do something first before you can proceed? GTD

How many times do you realize that a situation came back and blew up because it was not handled well when first seen or heard?  GTD.  Learn to give items attention when they first show up so you don’t have to give way more attention to it later, when it blows up.

We all have our way of doing things, and some of these skills you may already be doing.   Guaranteed, you will learn additional tactics and the science behind why you should be changing some of your organizational habits.  You could have the best tools, applications and programs, but if not used well, they are just bright shiny objects and toys.  It is about the habits not the calendar, app or organizational tool.  Change your habits, change your behaviour, you don’t need a more sophisticated system. 

The best part of the training is that you are shown these new behaviours using your own life, and your current organizational system.  You are not working with a fictionalized individual. You use your calendar, your phone, your computer, and your own to do lists to learn important skills.  You are your own content.  It is training where I want to see people on their phones and on their devices!  You will walk away with your schedules, emails, lists and commitments on the path to a structure and clear organization that works for you and the skills to maintain it.

In the feedback I have received from graduates of the course they have identified some new key behaviours in their routine that have been the biggest blessing for them.  Learn more about these ideas.  

They include:

– Calendar first, then email in the morning. It is a way to avoid the newest and loudest because our tendency is to have something new arrive and make it our priority.

– Determine what items mean to you when they first arrive. We can only do 6 different things with the inputs that bombard us each moment of each day.  We can: File, Incubate, Trash, Delegate, Do Now, Do Soon

  • Set up a proper inbox (physical and electronic)

– Unsubscribe from unnecessary emails as soon as they are seen

– The 2 minute efficiency rule.  It takes less than 2 minutes to do, less time than to write it down or worse, try to remember to do it.

– Not one, large, unruly to do list.  Instead to do lists are organized by context. 

– Continuing to go through my email and make those decisions in the moment whether to unsubscribe, trash, or file. Commit to not reflag emails as unread.  

– A weekly review.  A scheduled meeting with myself to look forward to the next week and to go back and look at the week that just past.  Review your lists, clean up your lists, make sure nothing is dropped. 

And to conclude,

In my feedback method I invite participants to create an advertising blurb based on their experiences and ask permission to use their name within the organization.  My past participants are my best influencers for others in the organization.  Since this blog is going outside our internal organization I have removed the names. These are eight of my most current comments received and have not been edited.

“Peter I loved the online platform, which surprised me….I’m all zoomed out but this had so much participation and action, I felt engaged the whole time. What can be done to make all online learning work this way?”

“I thought I was a pretty organized person until I took GTD and then realized how much more efficient I could be with work and home life.  I have always believed in the saying “It might be hard, but it will be worth it” and tweaking and changing how I manage my “stuff” is game changing for me.  GTD is practical, hands on and truly for everyone. “

“By acknowledging that my brain is for having ideas not keeping them – the 2 min jobs that normally occupy my brain and stress me out are not going to anymore. They are happily going to be DONE and off my brain!!!-“

“This course addresses a really important aspect of our professional lives, our use of time. The GTD method is logical and can make a huge difference to people professionally as well as personally. “

“GTD allows one to continue to learn effective ways to utilize time.  The training embeds time to look at the effectiveness of our brains, the pitfalls that we encounter and then supports you with the steps to take to do things differently.”

“Getting things done is a toolkit of skills that helps you change your behaviour and use calendars, email and list management tools effectively.”

“I truly have enjoyed the GTD program and cannot believe the difference it already has made, helping to clear my mind by capturing thoughts.  My goal this summer is to dig a bit deeper into the program and also read the eBook.  I think the concept and “new lifestyle” will help me with all the different aspects of my new position and also with staying on top with my home life.”

“Peter was a great facilitator, clear, concise delivery and he truly believes in and uses the GTD philosophy!”

Could not have written it better myself!

Thanks for reading everyone, be well. I’ll ‘see’ you next week.

Reach out if I can assist you in finding out more about the benefits of Getting Things Done.

Staff Meetings

Interesting Ideas

I want to thank those that have been reading my blogs and sending messages.  I love your support and how you have introduced my ideas to others.  I appreciate you.

Way back in 1938, John Dewey wrote in Experience and Education, ‘We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience’.  This is one of the reasons why I have been writing my ‘Interesting Ideas’ blog each week.  Since retiring, and moving to new chapters in my life I have been thinking back to the leadership opportunities that were provided for me and how I have watched others grow into amazing leaders themselves. My hope is that you find these ‘ideas’ ‘interesting’ and give some of them a try.  I welcome any comments or feedback.

This week, I want to discuss staff meetings.

How are your staff meetings?  Truly. Ever participated in a great one?  Bet there are a few where you wish you could have that time back!  As a leader consider every staff meeting as an opportunity.  

Our meetings were never left to chance and planning for them started long in advance of the actual date.  If you are limited in the number of times you can bring everyone together to hear, see and experience the same messaging, why would you not elevate the importance of this gathering? Too many of us have experienced awful staff meetings, that served little purpose and only made withdrawals from the pool of positive cultural experiences you have been trying to build with your staff. Every staff meeting says something about your climate and culture.  Use them as a way to multiply the positive aspects you wish to see in your school.

My goal each time was simple.  The time we are going to spend together must add to our shared understanding of the important work we do together and/or build on our relationships we have within our group.  At the end of the meeting, if the people don’t have a deeper understanding of the work, purpose, rationale, or school mission and/or don’t have a deeper appreciation of the great people they are working with, then you have wasted their time.  In fact, a meeting that does not do at least one of these (purpose/relationships) may actually do more harm than good. Too often we have meetings where at the end we have less understanding about what we need to do, more confusion and we are not liking the people all that much either.

The staff will never believe in their collective capacity unless you give them opportunities to share with one another.  You cannot complain about staff working in isolation if you never provide opportunities for them to be together.  You cannot complain about them not getting along if you simply throw them together and expect them to get along.

Our staff meetings are professional learning meetings.  We are going to learn together.  We are going to have fun together.  We are going to learn to appreciate each other.

Get all the ‘paper work’ out of the staff meeting and find a way to provide this passive information to the staff in another way.  There are ways that staff can be held accountable for required content, especially if you find creative ways to provide them time outside of the staff meeting to read, review etc.  Make staff meetings about learning together, building relationships by having lots of interactions and put all your announcements, due dates etc in some other format.

Set up a shared document early in the year that organizes the staff learning meeting agenda by month.  Encourage your staff to add their ideas that they would like to share, the amount of time they would like and the suggested month they would like to present.  Praise your staff and nudge them to get involved.  As you walk through the school and notice great things happening in your school ask the staff member to share with others at the next meeting.  Encourage!  How does it feel to have someone notice your good work and acknowledge that it should be shared with others?  Some staff have said no thank you, but with a bit of coaxing almost all have come around.

The week heading into the staff learning meeting we would create a ‘conference schedule’ and it had all the options that were going to be available at the meeting the following week. Each meeting staff had conference choices throughout the building.

We would always start together in a central gathering spot and this was for two main reasons.  Those presenting could do a quick 30 second elevator speech about their topic and from a management stand point it made sure everyone was there on time.  If you start with the conferences in different locations, you may notice people not beginning on time, but having to come to a gathering spot where you are located helped with this accountability.  Very infrequently if we had any face to face announcements they could be done at this time.

There might be 5 different choices for the first half hour, then three choices for the next quick 15 minutes and ending with another choice of 15 minutes.  It might require a bit of organization going into the week to coordinate the lengths of sessions (15, 20, 30) but short and sweet were often the best use of our time.  Also, presenters could share their classroom and knowledge twice, so more of their colleagues could attend.  Often our staff put in so much work it was nice that they were able to present their ideas and materials more than once during a meeting.  Members of the grade teams were encouraged to divide and conquer In order to go to as many different presentations as possible.

Some sessions were done by master teachers. Some were done by beginning teachers trying things out and wanting to get some feedback. Some were used to share a resource or technology tool.  The spread of the content was impressive and it was not uncommon to hear someone try something the next day and report back to the presenter.  This social persuasion is powerful, peer pressure can be a positive thing if done in the proper manner.  It is important to note that as the administrator you want to be aware of the content and what is being shared.  Having staff share without being aware of the messaging or content is a recipe for a major clean up after and a bit of front end work allows you to have great conversations with staff about what they wish to share.

More about the workshops.  The English Language Learner Team presenting almost every month, as well as the special education resource teachers.  These session were not large overwhelming content but instead a few strategies for things they had noticed in classrooms that they really wanted to highlight to benefit students.  They were aiming for strategies that could be utilized the next day.  We had classroom teachers present about community building, Significant 72 or their program. When the calendar indicated we were getting close to a reporting period we had open space where teachers could go and have a facilitated discussion on reporting.  Think of the leadership training you can provide by having your aspiring leaders being asked to facilitate difficult conversations.  They are coached ahead of time, given a protocol to follow but they need opportunities like this.

In this past year we have had sessions on:

Community members came in and spoke about days of significance that our students and their families would be observing.  Every year we had conversations and presentations close to Ramadan.  We had sessions on topics such as Halloween, Christmas and other long held school practices that needed to be examined and discussed for classrooms in 2021.  Mental health and well-being. Equity. The health curriculum. Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy. Indigenous Education. Discriminatory and Harmful Language. Technology Enhanced Learning. Mathematics.

Often our board of education would provide professional development in a train the trainer model.  When we put out the request to see who might be interested we would receive way more interest than spots available.  People began to understand that if you went to a system training you would return and be asked to help run a staff learning session during our monthly meetings.  Staff that were away for a day on professional development knew they were coming back to share.  Going to the staff development their focus was different, knowing they had this responsibility.  I would love to present to an audience where everyone knows they have the responsibility to go back and share with others.  Captive audience for sure.

I will speak about it more in an upcoming blog but as an administrator what do you do with your teacher’s annual learning plans?  In the province of Ontario, teachers are asked to create a document outlining their personal plan of growth for the school year.  Administrators, do you use these?  Do you read them and respond?  Think about the data you can gather from these that can then be used for your staff learning meetings. These documents can provide you with the content.  Not only can you find individuals that can assist others that want to learn about particular topics but knowing your staff you can match up needs with expertise.  Someone wants to know more about readers/writers workshop, someone wants to improve their website, someone wants to add more hands on activities in mathematics/science.  One person may request it, and you find the person that is doing it. When the ‘expert’ shares the topic that you have asked them to present because they are living it, many staff will attend their session because these are universal needs and not just for one person. Some of our final meetings of the year were sessions run by people who made great changes in their program and we wanted to celebrate and share their learning with others. Celebrate the successes.

I set aside funds each year in our staff development budget for books and resources.  If any staff were interested in a resource and let me know I would purchase the resource for them.  I would purchase two copies in fact.  One copy would go to the staff member and the other copy would be placed in the professional resources section of the library.  Do you have a professional resources section for staff in the library?  Who decides what is purchased for the collection?  Do staff use the resources that are there?  Ours do!  They use the resources because their colleagues have selected them.  Inside the front cover of the library copy of the book is a book plate with the staff member’s name because they are the ‘expert’ for this book. They have their own copy, they wanted their own copy AND they did a presentation at a staff learning meeting letting others know about this great resource that is now available to all of them in our professional section of our library.  That’s a good deal.  A new resource for a presentation on the resource.  I’ll make that deal every time. You will collect great books, you will have wonderful presentations and two things will happen.  You have increased the staff’s knowledge/commitment to the work you are doing in the school by sharing with them a current resource and you have invested in your people. A win/win.

One of my favourite ideas was to go on a field trip.  The first session after the beginning gathering might be going on a ‘field trip’.  This is when I would take the entire staff to a location in the school and we would stand in the spot to have a look.  Do you know there are places in your school where some of your staff have never travelled?  Do your kindergarten teachers even step out of the kindergarten area?  Do your senior teachers ever move down to a primary classroom?  Have your teachers seen some of the amazing specialty rooms you have in the building?

Of course this is all set up with the teacher that works in this location, they know we are coming.  When we get there I ask everyone just to stand silently and look around. They can move a bit if they wish but I want them to look at how this teacher has created their learning environment, how it works for students and to think about any questions they may have.  And then we do the same three steps..

  1. share with us one thing you noticed that is really impressive in your mind and why = a comment, no response, but the person gets their bucket filled
  2. ask the person something about the room, why they have done something, or the purpose = a question, that requires a response and others learn from the response
  3. and finally, the person themselves shares with everyone else a challenge, or dilemma they have in their room, or with their materials etc = a comment that others can now assist with

Not only do you start to see great practices start to blend into other locations of the school, but you see solutions to common road blocks being solved collectively.  One of the most heartwarming was a new teacher commenting that she is slowly adding to her personal classroom library resources that are appropriate for the reading levels in her room by going to book sales and yard sales.  By the end of the week donations from experienced staff in the building, that still had materials they were no longer using due to a different assignment, came pouring in.

Most times when staff members encounter difficulties, they are not coming to you as the administrator first. They may come to you in time.  They may come to you if you have a relationship with them built over time, but most times your staff are going to each other, and that’s what you want.  Staff learning meetings allow you to highlight the great practices in your school that you want replicated. Give everyone the opportunity to see that the expertise is in the building.  Your school building is full of hard working, dedicated and caring individuals

I love the work that the central office team does. The curriculum and program departments, special education departments etc all do fabulous work and they are specialists, but they ‘live’ outside your building. If every time you have a ‘bump’ in the road, and sometimes, you must go outside your building, but the support can not come quick enough.  Staff need to know they work in a building where the support, care and knowledge is just across or down the hall.  

Have trust in your teachers that they have the capacity to know/share/care and explain.  Hand over the meetings to them.  Put your staff meetings on paper/electronic.  And use every opportunity you can to have staff ‘learning’ meetings.  The change in school culture will be the immediate.

Remember, we are better because we have deeper understanding of our work and we have a deeper understanding of each other.  Every time we get together that is our mission.  Staff learning meetings accomplish both these goals.

Build Climate Through Visuals

Interesting Ideas

I want to share three bulletin board ideas for the front hallway of your school close to your entrance, or as a front display case. These visuals will add to your climate and culture with staff, students and their families.  During regular times when parents entered our school prior to the pandemic these boards would be prepared for the beginning of the year and curriculum night/Open House evening in high traffic areas in order to invite participation and get some great feedback for you and your school.  Plus, they are just fun.

Ask staff to participate with you in an ‘Ask Me About…’ board.  We asked staff to provide a photograph and we gave an index card to each of them.  On the index card they would write a topic that they had an interest in, and/or knowledge about, that others might not realize they had this interest.  Some were very factual and detailed and others were put up for fun.  Across the top of the bulletin board in large letters we would write, ‘ASK ME ABOUT…” and then below would be the photographs of staff and the cards showing their interest. Staff would include travel destinations, gardening, sports etc.  Not only does it show another side of the staff and you can have some fun with it the students and staff can make connections with others.  The number of times that staff shared with me that students approached them and mentioned that they also had an interest in or love for their topic was numerous. You can also have great fun with the staff that sometimes are a little slow in handing things in!  I often made up staff interests, used a staff photo from our school files and put up my own pictures of staff.  They were very curious when students would come up to them and ask them about their knowledge of ‘animals that start with the letter ‘P’’ or ‘world’s best water slides’.  When complete you can see the great variety and talents of the adults in the building.  Families that come into the school could see another human side of the great people that care for their children and the positive climate we have in the building.  It is important for your parents to see that the adults in the school care and support each other and it is a positive place to work.

The second idea is a blank slate.  Provide a bulletin board that is empty and covered in paper so students, staff and families can post positive comments, affirmations, quotes etc.  If the heading on the top of the board is something like ‘Our Positive Comment Board’ and you have a few staff begin the process you will be surprised at the high quality of comments that you receive.  As a graffiti board you can encourage diagrams, and sketches as well.  Have staff introduce it to the students in their class and have them share the intent of the board.  It can change over the course of the year, during special events, to encourage sports’ teams, days of significance etc.  You will need to monitor the board and be prepared to attach paper over top of any section where inappropriate messages may appear.  In all honesty I have not had an issue with this idea as long as staff pre-teach the purpose behind it and students are well aware of the expectations.  Students loved walking by and seeing their work and the comments, sayings of their classmates.  Consider having a space for the students to leave their impressions for sharing.

And finally, a place for your community to leave their warm wishes and thoughts.  During open house we would have a graffiti board similar to the idea above just for parents.  We would write above the board something like, ‘What are your hopes for your child this year at school?’ Or ‘What opportunities would you like to see this year for your child?’ Or ‘How can we be the best school for your child?’  You get the idea.  This would be a place for parents to put down their thoughts and share for staff what they see in our school.  Another way to accomplish the same outcome is to send home with students a paper with a star or the school logo and ask students to assign to their parents the homework of putting their answers on the paper that is provided.  When the papers are returned they are tiled up on the board for staff to read the comments, and this way you can select and edit the comments you wish to post.  Another way to accomplish the same result is to post on Twitter, or send out a survey, blog and ask parents to respond to the question in some manner letting them know you are going to print out some of the responses and display them in the front hallway of the school with names, or no names depending on your views.  Some families signed their names on the board or on their paper and some did not, so if done electronically I would give them the option to have their name included or not.  In my experience the vast majority of the parent responses were in the category of being safe, having fun, feeling heard, belonging, having opportunities, making friends and not specific to areas of the curriculum.  Staff need to see this, it reinforces the time and energy we invest in the important work of relationships, equity, belonging and mental health.  As parents we do want the same things for our children. The knowledge that they are attending a school where the adults care for them, get to know them as individuals and see all their strengths, desires and assets. Let your community and staff see what others see as the vision for the school.

If you use any of these ideas during the course of the year I would love to see visuals.  Send me a photo, I’d love to see it in action once again.  

Come on back next week for more leadership interesting ideas!

Be well.

Significant 72 – Part 3

72 Seconds Each Day That Really Make a Difference

Interesting Ideas

For the past three weeks I have been blogging about Significant 72. Check out previous posts below if you want the full story.  I also encourage you to visit the Significant 72 website at to read more from author Greg Wolcott.

The third aspect of Significant 72 refers to 72 seconds each day.  Make a difference for a child in 72 seconds.  What are the actions that EVERY adult in the school can do for 72 seconds each day that will profoundly impact the lives of students?  

Positive interactions lastly approximately 72 seconds, done consistently, day after day have a huge impact on the mental health, well being and sense of connection our students have to our schools.  Every child needs to know, ‘I see you’.

Many schools have programs where staff will identify students that would benefit from a caring adult taking an interest and connecting with them each day.  Some of these programs are called SOS (Save One Student), Playground Buddies, Teacher’s Little Helpers etc and these are all great.  These programs that focus on connecting with students are valuable additions to the initiatives we have in our school to “love up” our students, especially those students that need that extra bit of loving.  However, all of our students need to feel connected to the school.  Remember that in our School Effectiveness Plan we want 100% of our students to answer in the school survey that they feel they belong and are safe and comfortable in the school.  It is not good enough to target ‘some of our students’.  Significant 72 is good for all, essential for many.

And this is not the work of one adult, or a few adults, it takes all of us. We all know staff that try to do it all on their own.  Have you ever had to have a conversation with a staff member providing guidance about looking after their own health and well being because they are trying to do too much for students and their families?  Significant 72 needs to be adopted school wide.

Significant 72 works so much better when we have a team approach.  In order to support the needs in our community it is going to take our entire staff, and the benefit to the staff cannot be understated.  Our plan done consistently by everyone, creates and sustains our common understanding that we are a talented team.  When we see others doing it, staff jump on board.  It is wonderful to work in an environment where you are surrounded by others that care deeply about the children in the school.  We know we have a good thing going when we hear staff comment that they would want their own children in the school in order to be taught and cared for by the adults.

Yet, we all know of stories where it only takes one adult to make a world of difference.  If every child has an advocate in the school, their chances of success are so much greater. So every adult is asked to give students Significant 72 (seconds) each day.

Significant 72 done each day, by each adult can be a difference maker in your school.  It is simply a matter of changing our view of interactions with students.  We want every interaction with students in the hallways, outside on our fields and entering our school and coming into our classrooms to be a positive one.  We are glad to see you! We are so happy you are with us!  Today is going to be a wonderful day.

Significant 72 can be the 72 seconds in the classroom where students are doing engaging activities, revisiting some get to know you activities and finding out more about their classmates and their teachers.  At our school we extended the concept of 72 seconds to mean the interactions between staff and students in all other parts of the school.

Think about the times you have interacted with someone in retail or hospitality and they have provided exceptional service.  I am guessing your positive feelings about it are connected to how they made you feel, how interested they were in assisting you or simply being in a cheerful mood.  Positive comments are spoken here! We had posters with this comment inside our common staff areas reminding everyone the importance of our interactions with each other and with students and families.

We asked every adult in our school building to make sure they had multiple Significant 72 moments with students in a day.  It is a guarantee that the adults boosted their well being and sense of purpose each time as well.  They may have thought they were doing it for the students, when in fact Significant 72 has a definite beneficial impact on both the giver and the receiver.  The overall school climate feels different when staff commit to speaking and interacting with students in this way.  And this school feel or atmosphere is what keeps your adults coming back, they want to work in a positive building. 

When staff see the school as having a positive culture they will join in and do all that they can to maintain and participate in that culture.  Staff that are feeling a bit like Eeyore, don’t stand a chance surrounded by Tiggers!  Significant 72 is contagious. It was not uncommon for visitors to our school to comment about the ‘feel’, the ‘vibe’ and the creation of this was not left to chance.  It was the dedicated adoption of Significant 72.

We ask the adults to engage with students and really listen.  It could be the most important 72 seconds in that child’s day.  Those 72 seconds with you could be the best part of the day for that student.

Do the interactions always last 72 seconds?  No, but the rationale behind it is what is most important.  Our students get the best from us each and every day.  Starting the day, coming back from a break, there is not a happier place to be then moving through the hallways and into our classrooms.

When our staff are outside, at the buses, or on the field in supervision we can all sense the child that needs some comfort.  The child may be ‘walking the fences’ not engaged in play or simply off on their own.  Staff were asked to move around their area and engage with the child.  Ask questions, be curious, engage in conversations.  For 72 seconds give this child the best of yourself

Last week I shared the three actions that were part of our School Effectiveness Plan in the area of safety, well being, community and culture.


  • Significant 72 – first 72 hours, 72 minutes each month as community circles, 72 seconds each day
  • Community Circles done in every homeroom
  • Outside/Hallway Welcome (P1, P3, P5) and Doorway greetings (P2, P4, P6)

These three strategies really are Significant 72 written in a different way.  Strategy number two is 72 minutes a month and strategy three is 72 seconds a day.

This third strategy is Significant 72 for 72 seconds.  All the staff that have a class are asked to be outside or in the hallway when the bell rings and instructional time begins.  We no longer have transition time built into the schedule, so when the bell rings it is ‘classtime’.  

Teachers are with students when the bell rings, so teachers go outside to greet their class, or they are in the hallways as students enter.  Everyone not on preparation time, is ‘on’.  As a team you could have one teacher go outside to assist with entry, but the rest of the team is on the stairs, in the hallway.  They are present and they are visual.  No staff member is on their own in the classroom once the bell rings.  It is the start of instructional time so everyone is involved in Significant 72 and making the children feel warm, welcomed and safe. Everyone is Significant 72 committed!

We don’t have a lot of movement during the day, but if a class is moving during periods 2,4 or 6, teachers are in the hallway/door frame of their classroom and welcoming students to their room.  By being in the threshold of their doorway they can see out into the hallway and into the classroom.  And best of all, they can smile, say hello and welcome each child that enters that room to let them know they are glad to see them (high five, fist pumps etc)

How do you like to begin your day?  We all have routines.  Imagine the routine for a child entering a classroom of an educator that is over the top excited that they are spending the day with them. What is it that you need to get your day started and how can I show you I am glad you are here and part of our classroom community?  See the two posters below, second one used during Covid restrictions.

I’ll finish my Significant 72 piece with my favourite example of how all this hard work has its benefits and solidified for me the power of Significant 72.  Walking outside during a recess break I came across Fatima, a lovely grade one student off on her own not engaged with others in her class.  Wanting to walk the talk and show any of the staff outside what we mean by Significant 72 and being with students as we supervise I struck up a conversation. 

With her mask on and her piercing blue eyes looking deeply up at me I heard her say, ‘Mr. Marshall, can I tell you something?’ 

I took the bait and said, ‘Absolutely’. 

‘Mr. Marshall, you remind me of home’. 

There it was, the moment!  In my final year, after continually emphasizing relationships, relationships, relationships I had one of our youngest students prove to me the work was all worth it.  She was ‘home’. 

I was so touched and thanked her for her beautiful comment.  Being an educator I ‘double clicked’ in order to go deeper and asked, ‘Why do you feel it is like home’. 

And then a lovely voice from beneath the mask replied, ‘You kind of remind me of my grandpa’.


Significant 72 – Part 2

72 Minutes Each Month

Interesting Ideas

For those that read last week’s blog on Significant 72, thank you very much and as promised here is the continuation of our Significant 72 story.  If you missed last weeks’ ‘first chapter’ scroll down and check out part one in the previous blog.

As you recall there are three main aspects to Significant 72 (72 hours, 72 minutes and 72 seconds).  Last week, it was all about the first three days of school; 72 hours.  Let’s talk about how we used Significant 72 for 72 minutes a month to really impact the climate, culture and student voice and experience at the school.

When our school first formed we established in our goal setting and plans three key indicators from the School Effectiveness Framework: A support for school improvement and student success.  We were going to invent in relationships first.

Indicator​ ​2.5​: ​Staff,​ ​students,​ ​parents​ ​and​ ​school​ ​community​ ​promote​ ​and​ ​sustain​ ​student​ ​well-being​ ​and​ ​positive​ ​student​ ​behaviour​ ​in​ ​a safe,​ ​accepting,​ ​inclusive​ ​and​ ​healthy​ ​learning​ ​environment. 

Indicator​ ​3.3​: ​Students​ ​are​ ​partners​ ​in​ ​dialogue​ ​and​ ​discussions​ ​to​ ​inform​ ​programs​ ​and​ ​activities​ ​in​ ​the​ ​classroom​ ​and​ ​school​ ​that represent​ ​the​ ​diversity,​ ​needs​ ​and​ ​interests​ ​of​ ​the​ ​student​ ​population.

Indicator​ ​6.2​: ​Students,​ ​parents​ ​and​ ​community​ ​members​ ​are​ ​engaged​ ​and​ ​welcomed,​ ​as​ ​respected​ ​and​ ​valued​ ​partners​ ​in​ ​student learning. 

Using these indicators to inform our Safe School’s Plan and our School Effectiveness Plan we created yearly goals focusing on literacy, numeracy, and health and well being (climate & culture).  Goals were created in each of the three areas and the three indicators above (2.5, 3.3, 6.2) were key in each area.

Our school goal focusing on climate and culture was based on our belief that all children are important.  When we said all, we meant all.  100% of our students indicate they have a strong sense of well being and sense of belonging.  How could we in good conscience say it is okay to have 80% of our students feel this connection to the school.  Nope, we have the ambitious goal of reaching every one of our students.

The cumulating data we used for our well being goals can be found within staff, community and student surveys that are used to generate important school context information.  Two common surveys we have used are Tell Them From Me (TTFM) and Have Your Say.  Usually these are done during a scheduled time in the year and data is retrieved quickly to be used by the staff.  These are all very valuable.  However, we wanted faster, focused, easier to administer data and we tied this need to hear from our students in with Significant 72.

Our SMART goal was stated as this:By June 2020, 100% of students will indicate they have a strong sense of belonging and well being assessed by the TTFM data. The use of three key strategies (Significant 72, Class Community Circles, Greetings) will significantly impact these results.  Monthly monitoring of key questions will allow for the implementation of improvement strategies between survey dates.

There were three key actions mentioned in the goal.


  • Significant 72 – first 72 hours, 72 minutes each month as community circles, 72 seconds each day
  • Community Circles done in every homeroom
  • Outside/Hallway Welcome (P1, P3, P5) and Doorway greetings (P2, P4, P6)

These three strategies really are Significant 72 written in a different way.  Strategy number two is 72 minutes and month and strategy three is 72 seconds a day.

I’ll speak about the third strategy (Outside/Hallway Welcome) next week when 

discussing Significant 72 as a daily occurrence.

Significant 72 each month is about relationship building. 72 minutes each month dedicated to strengthening the connections we have to each other and to the work we are doing with our students.  This work is important and not just left to the first 72 hours of the year. We revisit on a consistent monthly basis the importance of relationships first.  But we also did something in addition to this to strengthen our data, provide opportunity for student voice and to really walk the talk in regards to our school effectiveness goals.

I’ll tell you what Significant 72 each month is not.  It is not a movie put on because the students ‘earned it’ or accumulated ‘class points’.  It is not a reward that is given, it is a regularly scheduled effectiveness strategy carried out in each and every classroom.  Instructional time is too valuable not to be used fully.  Great educators realize they do not have enough time to do the things they wish to do.  It is 72 minutes a month to get reconnected, and to remind each other why we are there and why each person is important.  It is also 72 minutes for the students to share with us how we, as the adults, are doing.

Each month our teachers were asked to hold a community circle with their students.  Staff could hold more if they wish or when something happened in class and they wanted to do some restorative work or collaborative problem solving.  But as a leadership team we wanted a defined community circle once a month, Significant 72.  The circle would be to relationship build, not just done in the first 3 days and forgotten, but as 72 minutes a month to get us some valuable information from our students. Using this student voice provided us the opportunity to make changes as we needed and not have to wait until we received our data in the larger regularly scheduled survey.  I would also suggest including students in this manner assisted us with student perception when they did come around to doing the surveys.  Our students understood their voice and opinion mattered.

Staff were first instructed on how to operate a community circle, how to set the expectations for student input and listening skills so that a community circle could run effectively.  Those that had received training took staff through the proper steps as well as some volunteered to go into a classroom and model for the teacher how to run an effective class circle.

The first week of every month during our staff development learning meetings we would share our question of the month for staff.  Staff were asked to conduct a community circle meeting some time during the rest of the week and record the responses from the students.  As well, in our meetings we would review the responses from the previous month to potentially make changes or refinements if needed.  The data was topical, changes could occur quickly and we did not have to wait for the cyclical nature of results from our other surveys.  What a novel idea! The staff meetings have student voice in them.

Some of the questions we have asked our students: (and some responses)

How do your families hear about what you are doing/learning in school?

What do you really want to learn this year?

What can adults at Boyne do to make you happy? Do well in school? 

What opportunities would you like to see happen in/for the school this year?

How do we welcome new students into our classroom? What will we teach them, and show them so they feel included, welcome and safe?

From Grade 8

What will you do to welcome a new student? How will you make them feel welcome and safe?

  • Say hello
  • Ask about their old school or where they came from
  • Introduce myself and tell them something about me
  • Ask them things they like and are interested about
  • Ask them to hang at recess
  • Ask to be their buddy for the week to get them used to the school
  • Be their tour guide and show them around the school and introduce to teachers
  • Introduce them to my friends in other classes
  • Ask them to sit with me
  • Get them to join a team or club
  • Ask them to work on a project or in a group
  • Talk about how great Boyne is
  • Tell them the teachers they can go to if they need help or to talk to someone
  • Make sure I check in with them everyday to see how they are doing
  • Get to know them
  • Tell the what I do if I need a break or where I go to clear my head
  • Ask them if they want to hang with us at recess and after school
  • Get them involved in the school to feel apart of Boyne
  • Show them what it means to work hard, be nice and make a difference

Are there places/spaces in our school or on property where you do not feel safe?

From Grade 7=

Where do you feel safe, comfortable? A place where you feel you can be most like yourself? 

– at break playing soccer with friends

– Serenity – games, quiet space, choice of activities

– homeroom

– band practice

Where do you feel unsafe or uncomfortable with what you see, what you hear or how you feel? 

– in the hallways when the bell rings – groups of students socializing at lockers means you have to push through crowds

– at break playing basketball – “trash talk” 

– at lockers after school 

– girls washroom/change room – girls eating lunch in stalls and leaving food behind

– bathrooms – younger students peeking through the cracks and under stalls

– on the stairs coming inside from break – people pushing 

How can we make a difference? 

– continue to line up outside of class

– more teachers in halls between classes

– schedule time at the basketball nets for grades

– have more activities available at break – 4 square painted on blacktop 

What do you see or notice the adults doing at Boyne PS to make the school a welcoming, safe place where you want to be?

Grade 6=

The adults in the school help us to feel safe by:

-working to help solve problems we bring up (e.g., phones in the bathroom, they still see it happening but agree we are trying to help)

-take their opinions into account (e.g., phone apartment)

-celebrate and education about religious events (e.g., Eid)

-support their needs in having a prayer room/prayer space (e.g., cricket tournament)

-push them out of their comfort zones (e.g., play day)

-build trust and reliable relationships

-help solve social problems fairly

-listen to concerns 

-encourage them to solve problems with our support

-ask about their weekend/day

-community circles

Teachers were free to adjust the question slightly in order to match the age and stage of the children in their classroom.

Teachers would record the responses and hand them in before the end of the week.  I would copy and paste all the responses into a master copy, take photographs of classroom generated charts etc.  These responses were then reviewed by the admin. team, our safe schools team and the entire staff in the following monthly meeting.  Besides providing valuable data the comments gave staff a huge complement for their hard work, it put smiles on their faces and showed that all the hard work was making a difference.

I don’t want you to think that this is the only use of community circles in the school, they are used by many staff and in many situations, but this monthly Significant 72 classroom circle became a required element

Because in Significant 72, you can’t just do the first three days and think the work is done. These 72 minutes a month allow us to remind each other about our commitments.  It is an opportunity for some fun activities and getting to know you ideas from the beginning of the year, as well as an opportunity to hear from our students.

Dig deeper into Significant 72, it will make a profound impact in your school.

Significant 72-Part 1

Interesting Ideas

For the next three weeks I want to share with you the Interesting Idea of Significant 72.

Significant 72 was introduced to me many years ago by friend, mentor and colleague Tom Hierck, @thierck as I was planning the opening of a new school.  Not only are the ideas within Significant 72 an important part of building and beginning a positive, inviting and joyous culture, Significant 72 continues to remain a major part of ‘how we do things around here’.  Significant 72 sustains the culture that has been created, and Significant 72 can change a culture needing a refresh in order to support all children in your school.  I strongly recommend that it become something you adopt for your school.

The ideas are simple, and the phrase ‘Significant 72’ has such a nice sound to it.  When understood, the words mean so much. It is important to have common language in a school.  Walk into the school and ask staff, what is Significant 72?  Every adult will be able to answer you and share its importance at the school.

Greg Wolcott @GregJWolcott has done marvellous work introducing Significant 72 to thousands of educators and has a best selling book: Significant 72-Unleashing the Power of Relationships in Today’s Schools.  You should check it out, in fact on the Significant 72 website there is a quote from someone named Peter Marshall, who has written,

“Significant 72 has been a major influence to the development of our new school.  It was a key aspect in the creation of our mission and vision.  At Boyne PS we understand the importance of beginning the year well, celebrating each month as individual classroom communities and making strong connections to students each and every day.  The concepts within Significant 72 are foundational within our School Improvement Plan and Safe Schools Plan.  Every adult in the school commits to these ideas in order to provide a safe, welcoming, caring learning environment for our students”

Today, I wanted to share how we actualized Significant 72 at our school. There is so much more that can and should be done, but really just wanted to give you a sense of the idea in action.

The three key uses of Significant 72 relate to 72 hours, 72 minutes and 72 seconds.  This week let’s talk about the first 72 hours of the school year.  Future blog posts will share with you how we operationalized the 72 minutes and the 72 seconds.

How you begin the school year with staff, students and families is incredibly important.  This year brings on added significance (see what I did there? Significance!) due to the journey we have all been on for the last 19 months. 

Tom Hierck describes it best.  There will be tremendous pressure on all educators to teach curriculum after our disruption to learning, and we both dislike the phrases “learning loss”, or “learning gap” as we all need a positive outlook as we return, and words are important.  We have in front of us tremendous learning opportunities, and chances to provide ideal conditions for content yet learned.  As educators we are up for the challenge, look at all we have done for the last two years?

Relationships are critical for student success.  Content and relationships, are both so important, but more important is the order in which they are stressed.  We must focus on relationships when we return to our schools and Significant 72 is key to this.  We have a much better chance at being successful with our curriculum goals when we have our relationships tightly formed. Students need the relationships with each other and the adults in our schools more than ever before.

At Boyne PS the first 72 hours, the first three days were all about relationships.  Student to student relationships, staff to student, student to staff and connecting with families.  Our focus was on building our classroom and school community.  Our focus was on having staff really begin to learn the ‘stories’ for each child.  Using lots of getting to know you activities allow our educators to really focus on what each child is going to need during the course of the year in order to be successful.

We did not hand out resources, texts or jump into the curriculum in the first three days.  Go slow in order to go quicker later.  ‘Really, it’s okay that you don’t start right away’. Locker distribution was put on hold, handing out unnecessary materials was put on hold, all so we could learn about and with each other.  What makes each of us unique? How do our differences make us stronger as a unit?  What are the gifts that others have to offer?  and how are we going to function as a community for the next ten months.  Classroom agreements and commitments were formed using our motto of ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’

“In our classroom, what does it look like and sound like to Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference?”  All adjusted for the age and stage of the learners, but every classroom displayed their agreements by the end of the first week.  School assemblies occur in order to bring the entire school population together, in our case two assemblies due to our size and no assemblies last year due to our safety plans.  However, as an entire school what are we going to do together this year and how do our commitments translate to common areas such as the playground, play fields, washrooms, library, gymnasium etc.  It is important that our students leave each day excited to be coming back, sharing the positive energy with family members at home and when teachers contacted families early in the school year further strengthen the parents’ belief that their child was in a warm, welcoming, accepting classroom.  Every child needs to know they are wanted and they are going to have a great year.  Families need to hear this too.

The most important aspect of the first three days, the first 72 hours, is the building of relationships within the homeroom classroom model.  We stayed in homeroom classes on the first day of school, students did not travel through the school to meet every one of their teachers.  Homeroom teachers used the Significant 72 hours to form their family.  On the second and third day, students did meet their specialty teachers, but no curriculum was taught.  Our specialty teachers, and coverage teachers continued to work on relationships and commitments.  

A school of our size had so many new students each year, and there were new teachers to meet.  So many creative, engaging activities were developed and shared, there was never a lack of ideas. Grade teams, and division teams would share activities with each other and most often the end of the week was an opportunity to bring the entire grade or division together in some culminating activity.  One of my favourite memories was seeing our graduating grade 8 classes begin their final year in celebration, together as a group, as they would be at the end of the year when we say goodbye. Beginning your final year in the school in this manner is a special feeling.

Two questions I often get asked by other administrators:  Did teachers lose their preparation time if you asked them to remain with their homeroom class for the first three days?  And. What happens if you have to reorganize the classes and move some students into other classes?

First, yes, teachers did lose preparation time.  It was recorded and paid back when we were able.  Not a single teacher complained, publicly at least, as they saw the benefit of starting the year in this manner.  Our specialty teachers would move through the school and visit classes that they were going to teach, often giving homeroom teachers a break.  When staff come to see the benefit and know that you will return the time to them it becomes a non factor.  After year one, the teachers did not ask for the time back.  Three days (72 hours) of time spent building and forming their classroom community was worth the investment.

And yes, sometimes we needed to reorganize and move students at the end of the first week or the first month due to enrolment numbers and this was difficult but proved to us the impact the staff had on students in this Significant 72 process.  However, you know what happened, right?  The new classroom not only welcomed new students into their community, the receiving teacher went out of their way to ‘love up’ the student(s) that needed to move.  Not long after the change, everything was fine. It is less of a worry when you move into an equally lovely learning community.  In a short amount of time, students and families saw that our classrooms are not a lottery, where you ‘win’ the best one.  All the classrooms provide the environment that make students and families feel welcomed, cared for and accepted.

One noticeable difference from previous years and previous schools!!!  The number of requests to be in different classes, with different teachers disappeared.  Here is what happens.  On the first day of school, sometimes before the first day a principal will receive a parent request to have their child be in a different classroom.  No changes can be made in this first week until we were certain of our numbers and who had moved away during the summer or how many new registrations come in the first day of school.  So families were asked to give us the first week to see our numbers and we would be in touch. Sometimes, not always, I would share with the teacher that a student in their class wanted to be in another, most often due to friendship groups.  Not only will the students see each other during non instructional time, but the teacher has done such a great job on the first three days of Significant 72 that by the end of the first week, another email or phone call will come in from the parent asking to leave the child where they are.  Another benefit of Significant 72

Consider Significant 72.  

The first planning activity that teachers do together as a grade or division team is how to build relationships with students! What a wonderful thing.  Before they talk curriculum, before they create long range plans, they talk about how they are going to make their classrooms places where students feel safe, feel heard, feel represented and will thrive.  Teachers start their professional conversations discussing relationships!  Brilliant.

Put an emphasis on the first 72 hours, first impressions for students and families.  It will reap benefits for the entire school year.

I look forward to writing to you each week.  I hope as a leader you are able to use many aspects found in these Interesting Ideas.

Next week…Significant 72 in regards to 72 minutes each month, because  you just don’t do great work for the first 72 hours and think all the work is done!!!


The idea of having ‘best of’ in elementary schools is particularly concerning to me at this stage in my career.  As we begin at Boyne Public School it is important to develop our view of awards, not just for graduation but awards throughout the school as well.   As the staff that begins our school we have the important task of developing a philosophy that we hope will last well into the future.  After having a School Directions meeting early in June and listening to those in attendance it is time to capture what some of you were saying and what I have been thinking for quite a while now.

I don’t want to come across as hypocritical, because in every school where I have taught and every school where I have been an administrator there has been school awards.  I have played a role in handing out honours awards after each reporting period, recognized excellence in Learning Skills, gave awards for attendance and have participated in close to thirty graduations where awards were presented at a special evening at the end of the year for students and families.  So while I write about what some schools do, keep in mind that those schools include locations where I was Principal.  Once established, traditions and ‘the way we do things around here’ are difficult to change.  This is why I believe here at Boyne Public School we have the opportunity to do better, to be different and create something that is more reflective of our beliefs and values.

I struggle with the ‘ranking and sorting’ of students based on academic achievement, athletic performance, artistic ability and concepts such as citizenship.  In each and every school I have been a part of discussions that create tensions, concerns and worries year after year.  The staff discussions go something like this: we start by handing out awards for academic achievement (honours, numbers of A’s and B’s on reports, highest mark) and find we have to add to the number of awards being offered because there is inherent discomfort in having ‘just academic awards’.  People understand that there is something wrong in having only awards for school marks because students are more than their report cards.  We teach the whole child. Why recognize academic achievement at all, if people agree that marks are meaningful but not the most important aspect of a student?  So they create additional awards that honour effort, or improvement.  This leads to more discussion. What will be the criteria to measure effort and/or improvement?  Schools end up with many awards, in many areas in order to cover all the bases.

With report card grades as awards, the adults in a school generally believe that all the academic areas should be recognized.  We would need to have an award for every subject area.  If you have an award for every academic subject you then get pushed into the discussion on whether there should be a male and female recipient for that award.  This can lead to a discussion about female students in STEM subject areas, males in the arts, and this does not even take into account our evolving understanding and acceptance of the term “gender” for awards.  What a mess?  This happens each and every year.

Leaving academics for a while, let’s discuss our Learning Skills.  In situations where staffs are asked to honour students with Learning Skills Awards I have witnessed two different scenarios.  In one, students receive a certificate, or an award of some kind based on the number of ‘G’s’ and ‘E’s’ on the report.  How do students and families feel when they are one area short of recognition?  Do teachers manufacture results in order to have students not miss out?  Shouldn’t an award be created because it is earned by student effort and hard work, not due to the sole judgment of the teacher when faced with the decision of who will receive recognition and who will miss out?  I have personally witnessed assemblies where all but 2-3 children, as young as grade one, from an entire class, would receive a Learning Skills certificate.  Something is broken in a process that would allow those children to feel what they must have felt.  In the second example of Learning Skills recognition, I have seen schools divide the Learning Skills into groups, in order to focus on a small select group of the skills, for example, three in a term.  At the end of a set time, usually monthly assemblies, students are recognized for the Learning Skill(s) being highlighted.  Since there are so many Learning Skills schools ensure that every child will receive some recognition during the school year for at least one of the Learning Skills.  What must teachers be thinking when they look at their class list and see the names of the students that have not received recognition and they are running out of Learning Skills to award?  It is the final Learning Skills assembly coming up and certain students have to have their turn, because it is the right thing to do, it is what is expected of me and understood in the school.  There may be numerous students that should receive recognition for the highlighted Learning Skill but it is not their turn, or they already did win an award at the previous assembly.  Based on Learning Skill criteria, some students should be awarded for every one of the Learning Skills. 

This argument does not even take into account the whole assessment and evaluation criteria used for grading Learning Skills!  Self-regulation looks different for different people. I know that I have been fortunate to work with amazing staff, who are kind and thoughtful people.  But I also know that teachers do not always evaluate Learning Skills as they were intended, which is giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate, receive feedback and improve upon each and every Learning Skill, like we would for an academic expectation!!!  Across the grades, and across classrooms are we using the same criteria for the distribution of these kinds of awards? Do teachers use the same rigor and evidence for Learning Skills to determine a level of achievement as they do for the academic subjects?  It would seem to me that we should have pretty stringent criteria for the grades used for Learning Skills if we are going to go to all the time and trouble to award students for their achievement in those skills. We have students that achieve excellence in Learning Skills without ever having to give any thought or effort into receiving their level.  We have other students that are working extremely hard to improve their Learning Skills never to achieve the standard expected, and we have teachers who struggle with the assessment of Learning Skills.  Like academic achievement in subject areas, I think there has to be a better way.

Turning our attention to academic achievement, I have heard of schools that will set up a system that awards students for the number of ‘A’s’ or ‘B’s’ on their report.  Staff members will get together to develop a system.  Of course they want all the subject areas to be weighted equally, because they would not want to suggest to anyone that some subjects are more important than others!  Do students and families value the subject areas the same way?  Imagine how it would feel to win “musician of the year” (insert any other academic area)  in an environment where the arts is not held in the same regard as other subject areas on the report, by the adults in the school, the adults in the audience, or the students’ own peers? Someone may come up with a formula that incorporates the amount of time spent in subject area disciplines, because with so little time spent in drama/dance, although it is important for well-rounded students, it does not take up the number of minutes in a week that other ‘core’ subjects use.  I have heard these kinds of discussions in the past! 

Schools determine the number of ‘A’s’ required for ‘honour’s certification’ and then struggle with the students that fall just short.  They argue about the number of honour students in one class, or the grades in one class compared to others.  They grow concerned with the students that work incredibly hard and still do miss out on being able to achieve ‘A’s’.  They debate the concept of ‘A’ in our reporting system based on criterion referenced standards, which indicate that the provincial standard is a ‘B’.  They try to define what they all mean by Level 4 work.  Most importantly they struggle with how students feel when they rank and sort them based on their grades.  Someone in the group suggests that they should not be doing that to their students and families because there is an overemphasis on grades and performance, and the emphasis on grades begins too early in school.  Finally as a school they decide they will not award any student for academic achievement below a certain age because that is not what they are about.  It certainly doesn’t make sense in primary!  But how does it make sense in junior and intermediate then?

But then a school decides that for the graduation of their grade eights they will hand out medals.  Families, staff and students walk in the hallways of the school and see plaques indicating the names of the students in the past that have the highest graduating academic average in each subject area!  Or they see the award for the two students (cause you have to do male and female) that won the citizenship award, athlete of the year, musician of the year, dancer, artist, etc.  These awards hang near the front entrance of the school as a visual reminder, a first impression because as a school they are about academic achievement and indicating who the best is.  We could be a school where those plagues are hanging.  We could be a school that hands out the highest graduating mark award for all the subject areas, and have a time in the ceremony where we call out the names of our winners and they come to the stage to receive their award.  We could be that school!

The arguments against becoming a school like this and using numerical grades to rank and sort students are starting to gain momentum.  Yes, Universities and Colleges are still using grades for entry into programs.  But they are also increasingly looking at experiences, profiles, volunteer hours and other factors to determine who gains entry to their institutions.  They are not using grade eight marks!

Grade eight awards in some schools recognize one year of achievement or effort.  Is there a difference if a child has been at the school for 10 years and therefore the school could take credit for their impressive performance on the report card, or the child that has just come to the school in grade eight?  Who deserves the credit for the child’s impressive academic growth?  Was there academic growth? What if the best math student arrived the summer prior to grade eight? Considering the child has no control if they attend our school or the one down the street it seems like highlighting one year is incorrect, yet that is what some schools do. 

Don’t we want our students to achieve and be wonderful human beings, life-long learners, collaborative, curious, inquisitive and wonderful representatives of our school and beliefs?  Do awards support us in this direction?

 In secondary school is there a difference between a 78% and a 79%? (most likely you would not see a 79%, as a teacher would, out of compassion move the grade to an 80%)  Go ahead, try to convince me that there is a difference between a 72 % and a 75%!  This is why Elementary schools use a 15-16 point scale in grade 7 and 8.  Teachers should be assessing based on criteria against a norm.  Teachers then record grades based on Level 1,2,3,4 performance not a raw numerical score and then calculate an average.  We are past the days of determining an average from a mark book, yet on the report card we are still required to place a numerical value, hence the need for the point scale.  If we truly believe in highest, most consistent, most recent then we may have classes where many students perform at a Level 4 plus.  If Level 4 plus equates to 95%, because we need grades on a report card, who gets the science award when multiple students have done this?  In a large elementary school, with numerous graduating classes, does a 95% in one class equal a 95% in another?  Some subject areas may have one teacher for all the students, but many students will have different teachers for subjects in a grade eight home room model.  So now the debate begins, because my 95% students should get the award over your 95% students. Or, we give the award to 6,7,8 different students who all earned the 95%, all the names on the plaque, all get medals.  Or, worse, we pick one from the students that all achieved the same grade!!!!  Take any subject area in any primary or junior grade.  The highest grade possible is an A plus.  How many students could that be in a year?  Imagine taking all the grade four social studies A plus students and picking just one to win an award?  Yet, schools do it for a graduation award.

Change of direction here.  At graduation let’s have an award called, “Teacher of the Year”, also let’s do Educational Assistant of the year, and cap off the evening with Parent of the Year.  Sounds a little ridiculous, but how would that change the feel and mood of the graduation evening?  Every day you place your heart and soul in this school.  You put in so many extra hours while still committing time and energy to family, friends, outside interests etc (just like our students and their busy lives) You come every day and do a fabulous job, and ‘others’ get to decide who will receive this prestigious award.  In front of your peers, families and other staff we will bring a select few on stage to be recognized.  You are adults, you understand!  You will not feel slighted, or feel you are not appreciated.  Oh, and after not receiving the award, you leave the school and go to another school the following year, without the chance to be recognized the following year. You get one chance.  

We talk a lot about collaboration, how can we discuss community, inclusion, and acceptance and then provide individual awards?

The argument for giving out awards often sounds like this.  Our grade eights will understand.  Their families will understand.  That’s life!  And, life is hard. These are not my thoughts but I have heard it said, we are not preparing students for the world in which they currently live, we are preparing students for the world that is ahead of them.  In a very short time, we will have students leave us that have been here numerous, numerous years.  In a decade, we will have our first graduating class of our original Kindergartens.  They would have been with us for ten years.  Ten years is longer than they will be in any other institution of learning.  Ten years is longer than some of them will be in a career, before switching to another.  Ten years is longer than some of their future relationships.  We have a ten year relationship!!  Ten years they have heard ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’ and on their special evening, when they say goodbye to us and we wish them well, we award some of them.  We have to do better.  We will do better.

While I knew we had the first year to really consider these kinds of decisions, I knew the time would come with a full group graduation in the second year.  I understood we would have a very special graduation in the first year with three students from our Life Skills class.  They were deserving of a celebration and we would not be setting any precedent because a graduation of three students would look different than a graduation of sixty students.  It was an example of ‘going slow in order to go fast’.  Once the decision is made to create awards, purchase plaques, and develop criteria for those awards your graduation ceremony and process is pretty well set for all those that come after you, with probably only minor changes.  And while it is impressive to visit a school and see the ‘Wall of Fame’, I question who it serves.  Do awards start to lose their luster for those that have achieved success early and often.  How many athletic awards does the athlete of the year have in their bedroom prior to winning the grade eight award and what does this recognition do to the self-esteem of the other students? Does it inspire the current students to Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference in order to get their names on the wall?  Is there a better way to motivate and inspire?  What impact does a child’s background, families, socioeconomics, home environment and current teachers have on the winners of awards?

There is currently lots of debate about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards within the research.  Providing a prize versus the internal drive of doing the right thing is a key debate at this time. The work of Alfie Kohn, The Risk of Rewards tells us that when safe, inclusive learning environments are provided rewards and punishments are unnecessary and are actually destructive to children.  Daniel Pink’s, Drive shares lots of research about motivation and the detrimental impact of rewards on critical thinking.  He believes that award ceremonies are for the adults, not the students.  Would Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets see awards for achievement as fostering a fixed or growth mindset?  John Hattie’s Visible Learning, confirms these beliefs.  Tangible rewards undermine motivation, engagement and regulation. Imagine how those students, who understand early in the year that they will not receive an achievement award, look forward to their ending school months and graduation?  They know who the winners will be!

For those fortunate enough to witness our Life Skills graduation this past year you would have been extremely happy and proud about how the school was represented and the message we gave families and students about what the adults in the building believe and do.  Our students were proud, our students were happy, and our students were recognized for their accomplishments.  None of them received an award.  They all were given a moment in the spotlight and no family member or child left that day believing that some students were more talented, blessed or more loved.  This is what graduation should be.  This is the message that should be received about Boyne Public School and the people within its walls.  How can every graduating student leave our school proud, loved and ready for the next stage in their education?

We have a school mantra.  Tom Hierck’s new book, Starting a Movement explains

Develop a mantra that captures the essence of your school’s mission in a concise

and repeatable way…A mantra is a statement repeated frequently to aid in

concentration of thought. In Sanskrit, mantra literally mean ‘instrument of

thought’.  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. (p.62)

Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference.  If we examine the work we do with this lens, because that is why a mission statement is created, do we really live it if we rank and sort students and provide awards for a few?  When we created our common expectations for classrooms, hallways, outside, at assemblies etc using the slogan Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference we asked ourselves what it would look like and sound like if students and adults were doing those things.  If we included awards, recognitions and graduation as a topic, and created how this looks using Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference, do you believe we would come up with the current practice that is happening in many schools, or as a staff would we create something different.  And just not for the sake of creating something different, but because we know something just isn’t right about it, it doesn’t reflect our mission statement and we have the chance, right now at the beginning of our school to do something about it.

I am not advocating that we are lowering our standards or that every student gets some top award but I do have a suggestion that aligns our beliefs with what I think should be our practice going forward.  If we honour all student achievement during the year, and continually share with families how our students work hard, show they are nice and make a difference and also provide opportunities for students to shine in front of peers and families, do we still need a singular event at the end of the year to recognize a few? Instead of a yearend assembly to recognize a few students from each class why not end the year the way the year begins?  We work hard during ‘Significant 72’ to build community, inclusion and safety.  The ideas behind ‘Significant 72’ mean we continue to connect with our classes 72 minutes a month and individual students 72 seconds every day.  Each class at the end of the year holds a celebration in their final ‘Significant 72’ where each student is recognized.  Each student at Boyne PS leaves for the school year with a beautiful certificate and a story to tell.

I ask you to think of a student you worked with last year.  Now consider our school mantra of ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’.  To which of these three statements do you most associate with this student?  Do they have a high academic standing because they ‘Work Hard’?  Are they kind, each and every day, to every student in your class, so ‘Be Nice’ comes to mind?  Were they a part of a club, or group in our school that made the lives of someone better and therefore ‘Make a Difference’ is their banner?  When I asked the same question to some of you during a School Directions’ Meeting this past year two things happened.  Each adult at the table was able to tell a lengthy story about a student and they told the story while their face lit up, so proud of the student they were describing.  When we did a second round of storytelling, this time with a student that requires a bit more love and care, they were still able to connect how hard they had worked, how much they have improved, how they show up each day with a smile on their face ready to learn.  Even our hardest to serve students can be seen to Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference during the course of the year.  Every student can be recognized within our mantra.

At the end of next school year, I imagine some classes getting together in grade teams.  I can see the presentation of certificates being recorded so students can share with their families at home.  I can see staff writing out a paragraph on the child and sending it home with the certificate so families can share in the moment.  The possibilities are endless, but the bottom line remains the same.  If we learn about our students’ DNA (desires, needs, assets) and work during the year on the aspects of our School Effectiveness Plan (S.E.F. 2.5) that we say we are going to highlight, mainly promoting and sustaining student well-being and positive student behavior in a safe, accepting, inclusive and healthy learning environment then we will not be at a loss on how to recognize each and every student.  And, we don’t need individual awards at a year-end assembly.  Students begin the year in the comfort of their home room format and end the year the same way.  We still have a year-end assembly to say goodbye, laugh, sing and dance but it is community building not individual promoting.

Grade 8 Graduation runs the same way.  Each and every student has accomplished the same goal, the completion of their elementary schooling.  We often ask parents to hold their applause until all the students in a class are introduced, we even did that in Kindergarten this year (yes, come to think about it we didn’t give any individual awards in Kindergarten!  So again, why do we give them in grade eight?).  We ask parents to hold applause because we don’t want to take anything away from any other student.  We don’t want a student to walk across the stage and receive a huge round of applause to have the next student walk across in silence, but later in the evening schools provide individual awards????  How about all students have their story told.  Each individual can walk across the stage and the audience can hear what they did to show that they ‘Work Hard’ (maybe it is the highest grade in music?), or that they are ‘Nice’ or ‘Make a Difference’.  Is one any more important than the other? 

We have designed some beautiful certificates that can be individualized to indicate which part of the school mantra is being used and some lines for us to write in the reason why it is presented.  We will work on the details, but I am definitely leaning toward recognizing the accomplishments of all students in a manner that maintains positive feelings about themselves, and their views of the school. 

Will some think this is too nice?  Yes, there will be criticism about how there is now a shift to “everyone gets a trophy”!   Given the choice, I would much rather have a student or parent ‘or staff’ question why we do not have awards, than have hurt, angry, sad students and families on the final days of their elementary  school  career because they did not receive an award.  If we are going to stay on course with “work hard, be nice, make a difference” and frame all we do around this statement we have to align our beliefs.  If we have spent years working with students with this saying in order to have each believe that every single one of them is important, I do not see how providing individual awards is consistent with this. WE have the chance to do something better?  Don’t you agree?