Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Flavor of the Month?

In many educational jurisdictions, it is the time of the year when administrators move schools.  Some move by choice because an opportunity presents itself and they are looking for a change.  Others are promoted. Some retire or move districts. And others are asked to move because they have been in a school for a period of time that has been deemed to be too long. Whatever the reason might be, the net result is that the movement of an administrator has an impact on schools.

Let me start by saying that I am not moving schools, so this is not a post to address my own personal situation.  Furthermore, I will temporarily refrain from injecting my own opinions on whether the impact that an administrative shuffle has is positive or negative.  But I would like to generate some discussion on this topic that I feel merits some examination.  So, I would be curious to see responses from our PLN on the following:
  • Should Principals move?  What are the reasons they should stay in their current situation? What are the reasons they should go?
  • If so, is there an optimum number of years that a Principal should be at a school?
  • Does the movement of Principals promote a "Flavor of the Month" culture, or is it important to have some cross pollination of administration?
I look forward to a few comments--I have my own thoughts about this, but I would like to learn what other educators (teachers, admin, parents, students) feel about this and why they feel the way that they do.

Look forward to your comments.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My closed door policy

In the month of May, many people who are not in K-12 education might think that they school year is winding down.  Summer is on the horizon, the weather is getting better, and summer holidays are on the horizon.  However, for those of us who are in schools, we know that this is a frenetic time of the year.  Kids are realizing that finals are coming soon and are pulling up their socks.  Teachers are making sure that the students are in a position to finish their courses by the middle of June.  Coaches are gearing up for Provincial Championships.  Drama and Band performances are in full swing. Counselors and administrators are working feverishly to marry budgets to human and physical resources.  Plans around awards evenings are being finalized.  Grad planning has reached a fever pitch.  Everyone seems to be running at top speed in a dozen different directions.

I love this time of year.

But as exciting as this time of year might be, I always need to be cognizant of the fact that there can be a great deal of angst in the building.  Some of our students are starting to see the writing on the wall that they may not be successful in a particular course, and are wondering how they are going to turn it around.  Staff are curious as to what their teaching assignments are going to look like for the fall, and others are wondering where or whether they are going to have jobs.  Some are considering retirement, a decision that seems so easy to make on those dog days in November, but is not quite so easy when the time actually comes to make that huge decision.  Kids are tired and teachers are tired at a time of year when the energy demands are never higher.

I was walking down the hall this morning when one of our faculty approached me and said that I was "a hard guy to get a hold of" because "my door was always closed".  I immediately apologized, and expressed my regret for not having been able to see him for the last couple of days.  He quickly turned to me and said "No, sometimes it's your job is to close the door with people.".  He smiled, and walked away.

Reflecting on his comment, I have needed to close my door with people over the last couple of days.  A staff member has a sick family member, and needed to chat.  Another had some fabulous ideas for a program at our school.  Someone was tired and frustrated, and just needed to vent.  And yet another was describing how difficult that final retirement decision was to make when they were actually confronted with it.  A parent needed some reassurance for them and their child in contemplating a move to our school.  An alumnus stopped by to tell me how they were doing in their third year of university.  At one point I had three staff members in my office to chat about teaching options for next year, two more outside the door at the same time to ask about our upcoming PD day, and my cell phone ringing and my office phone ringing at the same time.  We all laughed.

At the end of the day, it is easy for us to beat ourselves up about not being in classes as much as we like, or being visible.  I wish that I could be out and about so much more than I am.  However, there are times when where we are needed most is behind closed doors.  To be a sounding board.  To be an ear.  To be a shoulder.   

So every once in a while, I hope it's OK to have a closed door policy.  Not all of the time, but every once in a while.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cam's Smile

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post called "I Give Up on Kids of Today".  An excerpt from that post:

"This generation is a lost cause.  They're lazy now, you know.  They don't work as hard as we did, as our parents did.  They're entitled, don't you think?  Never done an honest day's work.  Not like we did when we were young.  Kids have it easy these days.  Everything is served up to them on a platter, and they just sit there and it all comes to them.  They don't respect their elders, they don't respect anyone, never mind us educators.  This "right now" generation isn't worth our time.  I give up!  I just hope the next generation is better."

Are comments like these familiar to you?  Do you ever have friends who are not in education ask you "how you do it?"?  Do you ever go to get your haircut, and when you tell people that you work in a school, you are subjected to an invective so intense that you are tempted just to go with the crew cut just to get out of there?  Well, my question to you is--as an educator, do you do the right thing?  Do you let society know the truth about students of today?

Today, I am here to let society know the truth about students today, and one student in particular.  His name is Cameron (and yes, that is his real name, because he wants me to use it), and he exemplifies the truth about students today.

When Cameron came to our school in Grade 8, he personified the phrase "disenfranchised learner".  He did not like school.  He hated going to his classes, and demonstrated this each day by his abysmal attendance.  When Cameron did show up, his marks in his classes were poor, he would never bring PE strip, and he would resist any extra help or support that teachers or support workers would try to give him.  He had a frown on his face that you could see from a mile away.  He pulled his hood over his head, and would snarl when asked to take it off.   He was ornery, and just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  The teachers would chase him around the building trying to get him to come to class.  He was suspended.  Cam had given up on school, and our school was about ready to give up on Cam.  He had washed his hands of us, and at the end of Grade 8, we were scrubbing up and getting ready to wash our hands of him.  We could have, and some might say we SHOULD have washed our hands of Cameron.  Some would say "He wasn't putting the effort forward, why should we?".

After an introduction to the concepts of the Professional Learning Community in October of 2006, our school committed to a number of new initiatives, the first being a part of collaborative teams on the basis of common subject areas. These collaborative teams were given time during the instructional day to work together to establish team norms, emphasized learning outcomes, and work interdependently to examine curricular, instructional and assessment practices that would enable and ensure student success.  In concert with collaborative time, we adopted an Academic Intervention program that moved from being invitational in nature to students who were not being very successful to highly directive for those who were failing.  We then began to re-vamp a number of our assessment policies and practices in the school so assessments would inform learning and instruction and be representative of student learning.  Embracing the concepts around the Professional Learning Community was a huge undertaking that has been fraught with potholes and forks in the road.  But after 5 years, we are seeing changes at the school.

At the office, our discipline referrals have gone down.  We have fewer parent complaints.  There are very few issues at PAC meetings. Students seem to be happier.  At the classroom level, we have seen a consistent decrease in failure rates in our core courses--this is across the board, and consistent over the last four years.  We pick up students who are not succeeding quicker and more efficiently, and the mechanisms that we have in place to help these students are focused one one thing--making not doing the work and failure the most difficult options at our school.

We are far from perfect.  We are not there yet.  We are not a Professional Learning Community as so often is claimed.  But we are continuing along that PLC journey, and we are encouraged by the results that we have seen.  Yet for every bit of data that we have that indicates success for our school, I would trade all of it for one thing.


We didn't give up on Cam, and Cam never gave up on us.  We didn't let Cam walk away from us.  We connected him with key adults in the building who made sure they did things like say hello to him EVERY day.  Like ask him how he was doing EVERY day.  We made sure we kept close tabs on him so that we would find out very early when he was struggling in his classes, and then we made the interventions directive for him--we required him to be there.  We hounded him about his attendance endlessly.  When he was lingering in the halls, our support workers would physically walk him to class.  We killed him with kindness.  We made Cam sick of us.

And then something changed.  Cam started going to class on his own--he didn't need an escort.  His attendance got better and better, and eventually a non-issue.  He started being one of the first ones to his class.  He made connections with his teachers; they were nice to him, and he was nice to them.  When he got behind, he was sent to AI, and he WENT to AI.  But then that changed too, because he was staying caught up in his classes.  He was passing.  He became smiley in the hallways, and started saying hello to all of the teachers, to the custodians, to the secretaries, to the cafeteria workers.  He said hello before they said hello to him.  Everyone knew Cam.  Everyone knows Cam.

Over the five years that I have known Cam, he and I have developed a unique bond.  Cam wears a lot of cool hats, typically those of major league baseball teams.  I am a Red Sox fan, and one of his favourite hats is his Yankees hat.  As our school has a 'no headgear' expectation, and Cam sometimes forgets to take his hat off, he will often hear me hollering "Cam!  Take that ugly Yankees hat off!", and he will turn and look at me with the biggest smile, the smile that was never there in Grade 8.  I love seeing that smile every day.

In March of this year, Cam came to my office and asked my advice.  He wanted to apply to be the valedictorian for the School District #73 First Nations Graduation Ceremony.  He wanted to know if I thought that would be a good idea and whether he could do it or not.  I told him absolutely.  Go for it.  And that I would endorse him 1000%. 

Two months later (which was yesterday in fact) I heard his voice in the outer office asking where I was.  My heart started to beat a little faster, and I began to smile.  The door opened a crack, and in the typical Cam fashion that I like so much, he said "Hey Mr. Birk!  Mrs. Draney and some other chick told me that I am the First Nations Valedictorian!".

Cam had given up on school, and our school was about ready to give up on Cam back in Grade 8.  He had washed his hands of us, and at the end of Grade 8, we were scrubbing up and getting ready to wash our hands of him.  We could have washed our hands of Cameron.  But we didn't give up on him, and thankfully he didn't give up on us.  

I am so glad he didn't give up on us.

In times of frenetic schedules, strained budgets, societal ills, bureaucracy and red tape, it is easy to dwell on what could have been or what should be.  But we need to remember that there are success stories everywhere, in each of our schools.   Furthermore, we need to remember that there are so many things that we can do to help students be successful.  I am proud of what our school has become in terms of the way that it approaches students.  I am proud of our staff.  And I am so proud of our students and our community.

But as proud as I am of all the things that I have been fortunate enough to witness and hopefully to have been some small part of in my career, I can think of none that have brought me more satisfaction than the day that Cam told me he was named First Nations Valedictorian for the Class of 2011.

I will always remember Cam's smile.
The 2011 First Nations Valedictorian and his "Ugly Yankees Hat"

PS.  I would like to completely acknowledge our First Nations Education Workers (MJ, Flora, Diyame, and many others), our Senior Basketball Coach, Coach K, Lisa Yamaoka, and all of the other teachers that I know have sincerely made a difference for Cam. I know that he would want me to acknowledge you too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Half Full

Last week, I read a very impassioned post from Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) called "Being Positive isn't easy for this teacher".  I like Bill's posts, follow him on Twitter, and have one of his books on my night table.  His work is outstanding.  In his post, I heard a great deal of frustration:

"My point is a simple one: People working beyond the classroom like to believe that if teachers would just buck up—work a little harder, think a little longer, give a bit more—our schools would be sunshine and daffodils."

I sympathize with Bill. And as much as Bill refers to those "people working beyond the classroom", his sentiments are not totally confined to the classroom.  As a Principal, I too feel Bill's frustrations.  There is never enough money.  Never enough time.  Never enough resources.  Initiatives that seem impossible to implement.  Directives that are confusing.  Unhappy stakeholders.  Accountability metrics that fail to tell the whole story.  Conflicting opinions on collective agreements.  The list goes on and on.  And that's just on a Monday.  Bill is right, it can be hard to be positive.

Yet despite all these things that I could choose to really get me down, I just can't let them.  Every day, I get to work with incredible people.  Our teachers are awesome--skilled, dedicated and caring people who are just fun to be around.  Our support staff makes all of us and our school look great each day, from a happy hello on the phone to or parents, to a sparkling hallway and glowing trophy case, to an encouraging word to a student who is struggling.  Our parents are incredibly supportive, and when they might have an issue, they come in wanting to solve the problem together.

Patrick Crawford's Summits For Success - Get him to your school!
And then there is our unbelievable student body.  In the last two weeks, our students have made me so proud.  One of our basketball players was named BC High School Basketball Player of the Year , and another was named to the Canadian National Cadette Team.  Our Drama Department just performed the musical "Kiss Me, Kate!" with our band (with 7 Provincial Honour Band members and 3 National Honour Band Members--most for public schools in BC) playing the entire score, and it was unbelievable.  UNbelievable.  (Kudos to my wife for her amazing choreography of 17 dance numbers in it as well!).  I met with our students who have been named to the District Honours List and listened with humbled awe to their scholarship winnings and career aspirations.  One of our alumni, Patrick Crawford, came back to speak to 500 of our students about his awe-inspiring mountain climbs to Denali and Pumori, and his brushes with HACE, HAPE, and death--at the age of 19 (And by the way, if you have Grade 11s, his presentation (see ad in this post) is a MUST for your school--unbelievably great).  And a First Nations student who we really could have lost, who was so disenfranchised with school in Grade 8, who rarely attended, who finally made a sincere connection with two of our teachers, came to my office to present to me his application for School District #73 First Nations Graduation Valedictorian in his Grade 12 year. (I will blog about him later).

And that was just in the last two weeks.

So call me Polyanna.  Paint my glasses the color of roses.  Toss my pie in the sky.  But I CHOOSE to be in education.  I choose the job that I have, with all of the issues around money, resources, time, bureaucracy.  I knew it going in, I know it now, and I believe that those issues will never go away.  But I STILL choose to be in education, and I look forward to coming to work every day.  And the day that I feel that it is too much, that I can't deal with all of those issues, I need to do something else.  I need to walk away. 

So while I hear what Bill is saying, oddly, I do find it pretty easy to be positive. And while all of us have our issues, I hope that you will be able to find those rays of sunshine in your education situation that keep you looking at your glass as half full.