The Best of Best: Reflecting on School Culture

Since I began blogging, I have had many people ask me how I decide what to write about.  My answer is simple:  I wait until the weekend, and see what I am still thinking about from the previous week at work.  I use these lingering thoughts as motivation to write about what’s important to me.  It provides a way to reflect and it adds purpose to the work that I do as an administrator.  This week has been a particularly significant week for me, as I have just accepted a new position with the Maple Ridge School District beginning February 1st.  Although I am looking forward to the new challenge, I am also looking back, and reflecting on a great nine years at Dr. Charles Best Secondary.  As I prepare to leave, I feel the same way a parent must feel when they see their child go off to college.  Although I love my school, I am ready to let go, as I feel a sense of pride and confidence, knowing our school will continue to do great things.  When I think about what I am most proud of at our school, the answer is simple.  Our school culture. 

 This past Thursday morning, I experienced a serendipitous moment. I sat in  a district leadership meeting, listening to our guest speaker, Bruce Wellman.  I knew that while I was at the presentation, our principal, Mary O’Neill, was announcing to our staff that I was leaving.  I sat, reflecting on the past nine years, thinking about the growth I have seen at Charles Best with our culture.  Although the presentation centered on learning focused conversations, Bruce stopped for a moment and shared his simple idea for evaluating a school’s culture.  He suggested that the best way to test culture, is to walk towards the front door of the school with your arms full, and observe whether anyone goes out of their way to help you with the door.  This suggestion hit home for me, and  brought me back to my very first experience at Dr. Charles Best in June 2004:

I had just accepted a teaching position and I approached the school for the first time to set up my classroom.  I was seven months pregnant, and wanted to get the room set up for the fall semester so the TOC would be off to a great start.  With my pregnant belly protruding outwards I somehow balanced a relatively large box of materials and walked towards the front door.  Just before I reached the door, a teenage boy ran towards me.  Instantly I was overwhelmed with appreciation thinking to myself “WOW – what a great school… this boy sees that I am pregnant and my hands are full and he wants to help.”  I smiled and waited to hear “let me get that for you.”  Instead, I heard “excuse me… could you tell me what time it is?”  Apparently it did not cross his mind that it would be very difficult for me to check my wrist while holding a large box.  I apologized for not knowing the time and he ran the other way. 

Now, before I offend the students from 2004, I am certain that many students would have helped.  However, it did leave a lasting first impression of the school culture.  And, when I think of where we are at now, I can say with absolute certainly that our culture has evolved.

 When I think about our current culture, there is so much I am proud of.  Here are just a few examples of what I consider The Best of Best.

 Heart:  Our school has heart.  In fact, it really defines how we do things.  Our staff love our students, and our students continually tell me they love their school.  We do not have very many policies.  In fact, the only rule we constantly reinforce, is a rule of respect.  When respect is broken, our goal is never to focus on punishment. Instead, our counsellors, youth workers and administration always take a restorative approach where the consequences allow the student to reflect, take responsibility and learn from the experience.  We often ask “how can the individuals who have caused harm repair the relationship and return with new skills to help them in future situations?”   Our school shows heart in everything we do, from the way we treat each other to the way we interact with our local and global community.

Community:  Our school does a fantastic job of giving back to the community.  Our French Immersion students work with KIVA helping entrepreneurs in third world countries, our leadership students volunteer regularly in elementary classrooms, our Tech-Ed students help with community projects such as the kitchen renovation at the women’s shelter and rebuilding structures in community parks, our Home Ec classes prepare meals for the homeless shelters, our Best Buddies offer local babysitting nights and volunteer throughout the community, our Schools for Schools team teaches parents about social media, and our Project HELLO team helps the homeless reconnect with families.  At Christmas time, students and staff join together to prepare hampers for those in need and throughout the year we work together to support charities. 

 Mentorship:  Our school has an incredibly safe feel to it, and I believe this is a reflection of the excellent mentorship that occurs for both students and teachers.  New staff are welcomed to the school, and teachers show a willingness to share resources and find ways to learn together.  Recently our staff created a ‘Best Practices’ list centered around mentorship so we can support teachers new to our school.  Similarly, our incoming grade nines are each assigned a Best Buddy as a peer mentor to help them with their transition to high school.  Our new cross grade advisory model and our incredible peer tutoring structure allow for students to continually learn together and support one another at different grade levels.  Students exploring a passion beyond the prescribed learning outcomes are encouraged to do so through IDS courses, working with a teacher mentor. 

 Professional Learning Community:  Our teachers model a love of learning.  Many of our teachers have achieved or are pursuing masters degrees.  Many participate on district or school learning teams, and all participate in formal and informal meetings collaborating and sharing ideas.  Our teachers continually find ways to learn through professional development, and to give back by presenting, sharing with others or helping to create new resources. On Tuesdays, teachers get together for ‘Tech Tuesday’ and learn the latest technology tips from one another. Our librarian has designed an online library system where students and staff can learn at anytime from anywhere. 

 It’s Cool to Learn:  Our Math Camp is the best example of this.  Our math students volunteer their time to create fun engaging math camps so that middle school students can come to the high school and do math together.  And, they do so with such passion and excitement, that the camps actually sell out.  On the weekend…….  So just to say it again, they convince pre-teens to give up their weekend to do math for fun.  Now that’s a cool accomplishment!

 Acceptance: Every student matters at Best, and all of our students who face learning challenges are fully supported and accepted.  Our skill development students are integrated into our classes, and they become mini-celebrities once a month when they host  ‘Sugar Shack’ events, where they open up a bakery for the rest of the school. Our Learning Resource Centre and our Student Learning Centre offer assistance to students requiring adaptations and modifications.  These programs help students advocate for themselves and develop their skills in time management, organization, reflection, and studying. Students gain confidence in themselves and develop a greater understanding of how they learn.

 Participation: Almost every student at Best gets involved with a club, sport or activity.  From the Fine Arts, Athletics, and Service Groups, our school really has something for everyone.  We have over 50 sports team and clubs, and we always let the students know that we are willing to sponsor new clubs if the students are interested.  Some of our newest clubs include a photo club, a book club and a toastmasters club.  Our sports teams continue to excel winning district and provincial titles (though I have to admit this absolutely has nothing to do with me as I am SO SCARED OF THE BALL…. I really don’t understand why so many people like having projectiles thrown at them… .but that’s another blog all together).

 Growth: Perhaps what I like best about our school, is the willingness to try new ideas. In my time at Best, I have always felt supported and encouraged to think outside the box and make new suggestions. Creativity is encouraged, and programs are developed based on the needs of students.   As we integrate technology, and re-think our learning model, we do so with a focus on student learning, and an open mind.  When we look towards the future, we ask ‘What if?’, and we allow each other the chance to dream about the school we want to create. 

 And so, nine years later, as  I prepare to leave Charles Best, I do so with confidence, knowing that our school is a wonderful place to learn, with a rich culture that passes the test of Bruce Wellman.  I smile, knowing full well that when a new Vice Principal arrives with boxes in hand, someone will be there to open the door.

Change Your Perception… Change Everything

It has been said that if you can change the lens through which you view the world, you can change your reality.   The famous image below is perhaps the best example of this:  to some, this picture shows a beautiful young woman with a feather in her hair and a black necklace.  Others see an elderly woman in a thick fur coat.  With intention, we can allow our mind to look at this image and see it both ways. 

young-woman-old-woman-illusion

Our perception, is shaped by our upbringing and our past experiences.  Depending on what we value and what we assume, we are able to judge a situation and form an opinion about what we see. Have a look at this next picture and think about what you see.

 cellphones

Perhaps when you looked at this picture you saw students off task, distracted by their phones.  Or, conversely, perhaps you saw students embracing technology and using one of the functions on their smart phones as a learning tool.  Regardless of what you saw, I think it is important to note that it is very plausible that others saw it differently.   Recently, I have found myself in a couple of situations where I recognize that the use of technology creates different perceptions, depending on the lens through which it is viewed.  Here are three examples:

After a recent professional development workshop, I met with a teacher on staff who was quite disappointed about the level of respect our audience showed the speaker.  When I dug a bit deeper, I discovered that this particular teacher considered it very rude to type on a computer during someone’s presentation.   I then suggested that teachers may have been using their computer to take notes, as that is what I had been doing.   This was a shift in thinking, as this particular teachers saw the audience members with paper and pen as ‘on task’ and those with computers as ‘off task’.   Personally, I am intentionally trying to make an effort to use less paper and write notes on the computer as much as possible.  However this conversation helped me recognize that the use of technology may need to be addressed in the ‘housekeeping’ details at the beginning of a workshop or meeting so there is shared belief around whether or not it is appropriate to use technology.  At the most recent conference I attended, they encouraged the use of social media and created hashtags so conference delegates could share thoughts and add to the conversation through Twitter.  However, for those viewing technology as a distraction, this creates a very different image.

These instances occur in the community as well.  One of my friends is a hockey coach for his son’s hockey team.  He uses his cell phone as a stop watch to record playing time of individual players.  Mid season he received a complaint letter from a parent claiming that he was not focused on coaching as he was on the phone the whole time.  Again, depending on the lens you use, you can either see this situation as a ‘coach actively finding ways to give every child play time’ or a ‘distracted coach who is on his phone during the game’.  I’m sure the parent would have had a different perception if they saw him holding a stop watch.  Sometimes we need to recognize that our perceptions shape our reality, and that our assumptions are not always correct. 

In a third example, I had an hour to kill in a pediatric dentist office while I was waiting for my son.  As I looked around the room, I noticed every parent was actively engaged with their cell phone.  I sat looking at the room wondering what a passerby would think.  Would they see parents distracted by their phones?  Would they think the same thing if they walked by and saw parents flipping through books or magazines in the waiting room?  I recognize that phones have so many functions, and there is no way of knowing what the parents were doing.  Perhaps they were creating shopping lists. Perhaps they were reading e-books, perhaps they were using the internet, or answering emails for work.  And, of course, there is a chance they were filling their time playing Angry Birds. 

Regardless, each situation reminds me of the power of perception, and that as technology changes, we need to be aware of our own judgments when we see someone focused on their ‘smart’ phone.  If we rewind five years, we were quick to prohibit cell phones and pagers in class as they disrupted the learning environment.  Now, phones are capable of so much more, and many schools have moved to a ‘BYOD’ or bring your own device policy, as phones have the ability to enhance learning, if used responsibly.  If we recognize the potential good of cell phones in the classroom, then we have successfully shifted our thinking, and changed our reality. 

Similarly, security systems are primarily used to capture negative events.  However, what they really capture is a snapshot of reality.  As this uplifting video recognizes, it is up to us to determine whether we want to see the positive or the negative.  And most importantly, it’s a great reminder that we have the ability to shift the lens through which we see the world.   Our perception is our reality.  Change your perception… change everything.

Everyone Has A Story… Looking Beyond Addiction

This morning I had the opportunity to attend a great presentation in Maple Ridge with Dr. Gabor Mate, physician and bestselling author on addiction, attachment, parenting and mind-body wellness.  Dr. Mate began his presentation talking about addiction and the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.  He expressed concern for society’s understanding of addiction, explaining that our current system assumes two theories of addiction: the first that addiction is genetic, or the second suggesting that addiction is a choice people make.  What he stressed is the convenience of these theories, for as long as we support them we negate the role society plays in the lives of people struggling with addiction.  He encouraged the audience to look beyond the addiction, and ask “Why the pain, rather than why the addiction?”  Through his work on the Downtown Eastside he has come to realize that addiction is often a result of impaired attachments.

Dr. Mate’s presentation was a good reminder for me, as I often have the opportunity to talk to students about drug use. While some students try drugs for experimental reasons, I would say it is more common for students to turn to drugs as a way of medicating their own stress.   I am grateful that our district has an ‘alternate to suspension’ program to address drug use in students, offering counseling services and goal setting.  I am reminded to ask questions, get to know students, and dig deeper to hear the life stories, and stresses that may be masked by drug use.  Once we can determine the cause of pain, we have a much greater success of helping the student heal.  Research indicates that a connection to family and a connection to school are the two most significant factors determining whether a student will engage in problematic drug and alcohol use.  When students struggle with drug use, I need to remember that a suspension is a consequence but not a solution.  Taking time to get to know the student and helping them find ways to connect with the school will have deeper impact.

Dr. Mate’s presentation this morning also reminds me of a friend I lost a couple years ago, when he passed away from addiction issues.  Irvin Wickens became a friend, in the most unlikely of circumstances, and he left me with the most meaningful gift I have ever received.  

 Here is the story of my friend, Irvin Wickens…

 

In November of 2009, a church in Port Moody approached our school and asked if we could advertise a volunteer opportunity for our students to work in the local homeless shelter, providing dinner and conversation.  The response was overwhelming and we have over 100 students wishing to participate.  We committed to two shifts per week, where I would volunteer with 6-10 students and staff.  

 Our first night at the shelter was November 13, 2009.  It was a cold, wet, rainy night where we served chili and buns to provide some warmth to the twelve clients at the shelter.  As we served dessert, a student and I sat down beside Irvin.  Irvin had the stereotypical image of a homeless man: his clothes were worn and dirty, his hair unruly, and he was unshaven.  Yet beyond that his eyes sparkled, and he offered kindness and gratitude as we engaged in conversation.  Irvin told us that he it was his mom’s birthday.  I asked if he had had an opportunity to call her.  He told me no, as his mom had passed away years ago.  He also shared that he had lost two sisters.  Assuming they had died recently I asked him when they had passed away.  Irvin then began a story I will never forget….  he spoke of his childhood in Milwaukee, and a horrific night when he was just six years old.  Living in poverty, with a single mom and three siblings, he awoke to find their house on fire.  Irvin woke one sister who shared a room with him.  He then ran across the hall to try and get to the room his other two sisters shared.  The fire blocked the entrance so he ran to wake his mom.  He shared his memory of his mom running into the fire trying to save her daughters.  He then recalls his images of his mom emerging from the house covered in burns and overcome with grief, as she whispered ‘they are gone’.  In that moment, Irvin lost a 3 year old and 8 year old sister.  Trying to hold back my own tears I told Irvin he was a hero for saving his mom and one sister.  He then politely excused himself to go for a cigarette and I excused myself to tidy up the dishes.  In that instant, Irvin taught me that homelessness is not caused by addiction, but rather by trauma and an inability to move forward.

As I waited with our students for parents to pick them up that evening, one student who had heard Irvin’s story approached me and told me that he had been struggling for months with the news of his parents’ divorce.  After hearing Irvin’s story, he realized he still had two parents that loved him and he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself as his problems were minimal compared to Irvin’s. 

For the next year, we enjoyed our weekly visits with Irvin.  His eyes would sparkle as he would speak of his adventures in life, and on a good night he would break out in song and amaze our students with his beautiful voice.  Tears would roll down his face as he would sing Eric Clapton’s ‘Beautiful Tonight’.  When he finished his dessert, and left the table, he would always shout out with enthusiasm “Cowboy Up!”

In late March 2010, I had a great conversation with Irivn about what he would do if he won the lottery.  He spoke of all the charities he would help as he appreciated the help he had received from others and he wanted to pay it back.  On our final evening at the shelter I approached Irvin and told him I had a gift for him.  I gave him a lottery ticket and told him I hoped his luck would change.  I thanked him for sharing his story and for making such a difference with our students.  Irvin reached in his pocket and told me he had a gift for me as well.  Not knowing what to expect from the pocket of a homeless man, I remember feeling nervous about what could possibly come from his pocket.  When he unfolded his hand, he held out a small brown rock.  He told me that the year before the shelter opened, he was living under a bridge in Port Coquitlam.  Some middle school students had approached him with their teacher and offered him some cookies.  With the cookies, they had also given him the rock, and told him it was a friendship rock.  They asked him to keep it in his pocket, and to remember each time he felt it, that the community cares about him.  Irvin told me the lottery ticket would replace the rock, and he asked me to take the rock, and put it in my pocket to thank me for caring about him.  Eight months later, Irvin passed away from his addictions.  However, his story, and his rock, will be with me forever. 

Dr. Gabor Mate’s message, and my friend Irvin, teach the same valuable lesson.  Everyone has a story and we need to look beyond addiction to discover the root of the pain. Love, compassion and connection will always be more powerful that punishment and shame.

Cowboy Up!

Lessons of Hope… Project H.E.L.L.O.

If I rewind five years, I recognize that the anticipation of the Christmas season was something I marked with commercial milestones such as the arrival of Costco’s Christmas aisle or the transition from white to red cups at Starbucks.  Three years ago, in December of 2009, my students taught me the true meaning of Christmas. 

Our story began when a group of Best Buddies (our extra-curricular leadership students) asked if we could incorporate some visits to the Downtown Eastside as part of our leadership program.  Our intention was to visit Hastings Street during the winter season and hand out food and clothing.  A couple weeks before our visit I read an article in the Vancouver Province debating the merits of the social programs on the Downtown Eastside (DTES), questioning whether they helped or enabled the lifestyle.  I sat wondering what it would be like to rely on handouts and I thought about the reasons we wanted to help.  Recognizing that our students gained so much by giving, I began to question how we could give the homeless community the power to give during the Christmas season.  I met with the Best Buddies, and suggested we make some handmade Christmas cards and offer the homeless community the opportunity to send messages to friends are family.  Luckily our students embraced this idea and eagerly made our first cards.  We assumed that many people would take the cards and give them to friends living in their community.  We hoped that one person would decide to write to friends or family that they had lost touch with… but we had no idea what to expect.

During our first visit, I headed to the DTES with three students and a handful of cards.  It was late November and Christmas wasn’t really in the air, especially on Hastings Street.  Cautiously, and somewhat awkwardly we initiated our first conversation with a woman named Sandra who stood in the cold leaning against Carnegie Centre. We asked if she would like to write a Christmas card to any friends or family.  She smiled and asked if she could send two.  She had limited dexterity and asked the students to write for her. 

Sandra chose two cards.  The first one was for her daughter Samantha who she had not heard from in ten years.  Last she had heard, Samantha had two children and was living in Alberta.  She wondered if Samantha had more children now.    She also wrote a card to her mom Noelle, wishing her a Merry Christmas.  We promised Sandra we would do what we could to track down her family and mail the cards on her behalf.  That afternoon, we left the DTES full of hope, as we had met seven people who had reached out and opened their hearts sending Christmas wishes to family they had lost touch with. 

The next day, students met in my office and we started to search the internet for possible phone numbers.  The first calls we made were to Alberta, searching for Sandra’s daughter.   On the second call, a woman answered and let us know her roommate Samantha was at work.  We explained why we were calling only to learn that Samantha had assumed her mom had passed away after searching for her with no success.  Samantha reached us, ecstatic to receive the card and learn that her mom was OK.  She wanted us to let her mom know she was OK, and to let Sandra know that she had four grandchildren. She also asked us to tell Sandra that her mom Noelle had passed away six weeks before our call.  We knew we had to go back and find Sandra again…  and we knew our project had just become so much more than a one day fieldtrip.

We began to call our project ‘Project H.E.L.L.O.’ which stands for helping everyone locate loved ones. During that first season we took five trips to the Downtown Eastside.  Word of our project spread through the media, igniting a fury of activity as citizens across the province wanted to help.  Our students spoke to newspapers, radio and TV networks, sharing our story but also sharing names of people we were looking for.  All of a sudden we had people who offered to help: community centres, pharamists, small town post offices, the BC Housing Commissioner, and compassionate citizens.    From our first seven cards, we were able to find 5 of the families.  We had set out hoping to help the homeless but we quickly learned that we were the ones gaining so much.  We had never anticipated what our project would mean to the recipients of the cards, and we had not expected to hear so many personal stories about families impacted by poverty, drug use, mental illness and homelessness. We were so inspired by the lessons we were learning.

Although school let out for the Christmas break a week before Christmas, our students did not leave.  They searched the internet, used the phones, made connections and mailed cards right up until December 23rd.  On Christmas Eve we realized we all had shopping to be done, but the commercial side of Christmas just seemed so irrelevlant compared to the gift our students were giving these families.  In our first year, we were able to make 74 connections sending hand crafted cards with messages of love to the families of people on the DTES.  We searched for ways to reflect on our project and provide appropriate closure.  The message back from our students was loud and clear.  They did not want a wrap up event, instead, they felt this was just the beginning.  They asked if they could go back to the DTES and host an event sharing the stories of the connections they had made.  Our students wanted to find a way to express their gratitude to the homeless community for trusting them with their stories, and welcoming them into their lives.  The students hosted a gratitude event on Hastings Street and an evening of reflection for our school community.  They also decided to write about their experiences in a book entitled ‘Lessons of Hope: Rekindling Relationships and the Human Spirit in Vancouver’s Darkest Neighbourhood’. (This can be read online at http://www.bookemon.com/book_read_flip.php?book_id=78640&size=1.4&style=popup2)

In the spring of 2010, we received an email from Hawaii.  Word of our project had spread to their state sparking action with social services groups wanting to implement Project HELLO to help their community.  They decided to run a similar program offering Mother’s Day cards.  We loved the idea and followed suit, preparing Mother’s Day cards and returning to the DTES.  Again we were overcome with gratitude as the homeless opened their hearts and entrusted us to deliver their messages.  Many also embraced the opportunity to send updated photos home to their moms.  We returned to the internet and the phones trying to find families.  Our students received heartfelt notes from the moms, many who had not heard from their children in years.  We also received notes from mothers not impacted by homelessness who were just touched by the story and had a new appreciation for their relationships with their children.  Again the community reached out and helped us make connections.  Our students surprised Sandra and Samantha with a Mother’s Day gift they will never forget.  Our students fundraised and arranged for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a weekend with her mom.  Together we watched them reunite at the airport, share family photos and catch up on lost time.  They re-opened the lines of communication and promised to stay connected.

 Although many of our students were nearing graduation, they made a commitment to continue with Project HELLO. Now, three years later, we are about to begin our 4th season.  Local elementary schools (Coquitlam River and Baker Drive) have joined forces and are making beautiful cards for our project. Our alumni continue to be involved, speaking to schools and community groups about our project, managing our website (www.projecthello.ca ), and mentoring younger students as they begin to volunteer with Project HELLO.  Our students have also become actively involved in volunteer work at the local homeless shelter in the Tri-Cities.  To date, I am incredibly proud to share that our students have helped make 261 connections.

Personally, the journey with our students has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It has taught me the power of human connection, the importance of family and the positive difference our students can make when they help strengthen others and develop a strong sense of social responsibility.  I have learned that everyone has a story worth hearing, and that hope exists, even in our darkest neighbourhoods.  And so, as the leaves start to change colour, and others are thinking about Halloween, I am eagerly anticipating the Christmas Season and our fourth season of Project HELLO.  Next week our alumni will help me share our story with our new students, and we will again begin our journey of shifts at the homeless shelter and card making for our fourth season.  Together, we will continue to learn ‘Lessons of Hope’ and discover the true meaning of Christmas.