Thoughts from a New Principal: What I Don’t Know

Usually when I sit down to write, I feel excitement run through my veins as I channel ideas into text.  This post is a little different. Although I’m excited, I feel a bit of nervous energy running through me with an inside voice chirping the words “are you sure you want to share this with the world?” You see, I’m about to become a principal for the first time. I have a myriad of thoughts: what I think I know, what I know I don’t know and of course that unknown area… wondering what I don’t know but don’t even know I don’t know!  Some may suggest the ‘fake it until you make it’ style of leadership, but that’s not quite my style. I’d prefer to be myself and put it on the table: I’m new. I’m going to make mistakes.

For the last 15 years I have worked in secondary schools but this time I get to work at an elementary school.  Besides one parent, I do not know a single student, family, teacher or support worker at the school.  To add to this, we are also in the middle of job action in BC where teachers are on strike and clerical and support staff are not crossing the picket line.  That means that on my early days at the school, I may be the only one who can enter the building as teachers look on from the perimeter of the school.  It’s a daunting thought… I kind of feel like I have something in common with a burglar… entering a place familiar to others but foreign to me.  Hopefully my smiling face, kind words and some fresh baked muffins will distinguish me from your typical intruder. (And for those of you reading this who know me personally – YES – it will be my mom who offers to bake the muffins as I still can’t cook but do still have the greatest mom in the world).

As I transition from secondary school to elementary school some things are easy to figure out. I will no longer allow kids to drive themselves to school, take Tim Hortons runs or attend dances until 11 PM on school nights. I will no longer be writing numerous reference letters for scholarships and first time jobs.  These are the obvious changes. It’s the new social norms I need to learn…like Band-Aids and icepacks… as I head to the states on vacation i think it may be a perfect opportunity to stock up on kid friendly Band-Aids with the coolest logos like Pokémon or Monster High characters. However I also have visions of every kid lining up pretending to have an injury just to get a cool Band-Aid.  Hmmmm, maybe the plain ones are better….bandaid

And there is so much more I do not yet know…I do not know names, I do not know where the staff room is, I do not know what the typical routines are ,or what makes this school unique and wonderful. I do not know the history of the school, what students and staff have been working towards, or what has already been achieved.   Ok… let’s be honest… I don’t even know where my own office is.

For these reasons, that inside voice chirps “why on earth are these people going to look up to me as a leader?”  But thankfully a louder voice chirps “because it is going to be great!”  I know that I have a lot of learning to do but I feel ready and I trust that listening is the best way to transition. Although I openly admit there is so much I do not yet know, there are some things I do know….

I do know that I’m ready to give 100%.   I’m ready to build relationships, discover strengths, celebrate successes and try new things. I’m ready to give back and find ways to connect with our community.

I do know I’m ready to learn, which means I am ready to fail and ready to succeed. I believe that how we handle failure is just as important as how we model success. When we show students it’s ok to make mistakes, we give them permission to be more creative and take risks.

I know that learning lasts a lifetime and learning is reciprocal. I learn from students and staff and as they to can learn from me. I see parents, students, staff and admin as learners first. If we recognize that we are all here to learn together we can create a collaborative community with a mindset for growth.

I know that nobody likes spending time on what they are not good at. While we all have challenges to face, it’s much more uplifting to focus on the positive, celebrate our strengths, and discover the unique talents that each of us can offer. I believe in praising publicly and discussing problems privately.

I know that all teachers became educators because we love kids, love learning and we love making a positive difference. When we keep this at the centre of decision making, we will not lose sight of what matters.

I know that elementary students have contagious energy and a natural enthusiasm for learning that we should foster and encourage. How wonderful would it be if students entered high school with as much curiosity and wonder as they bring to kindergarten? Just last spring a six year old girl named Katie ran up to me when I was helping with recess supervision and proclaimed “I want to save my money to buy you a peacock bird bath!”   In fifteen years of high school I don’t think I received such a colourful, creative gift idea. While I’m not keeping my fingers crossed this colourful garden accessory arrives any time soon, I do hope to embrace the passion, enthusiasm and creativity that kids so naturally exude.

Finally, I know that we are stronger when we work together. When we create a safe learning environment we set a foundation where we can try new things, support one another and reap the benefits of a connected learning community.

As we near September, I know that I have a lot in common with the incoming kindergarten class.  We are new, we are excited, we are nervous, we want to make new friends and we know our moms are not too far away…  (I’m hoping my mom is at least a phone call away, not at the end of the driveway…but then again, being a retired elementary principal who still loves to give back to schools, she might just be out there… you just never know)

And so, despite that chirping inside voice that says don’t share this, I know I will for a couple reasons.  First, I believe that nervous energy is one of the first signs that learning is about to occur.  I know I’m moving into new territory and that energizes me.  Second, I write this for others because I want to model what I hope our students and staff do on a regular basis:  take risks, make mistakes, be vulnerable, and know it’s ok to not know everything.

I don’t have all the answers.  I’m not going to pretend to. But together I believe we will succeed. And so, Harry Hooge Elementary, I look forward to being a part of your community.  May we take risks, make mistakes, celebrate our successes, and learn and grow together.

I can’t wait to meet you.

Now, about those Band-Aids….?????

Kristi Blakeway

 

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How You Can Help The Homeless: 7 Holiday Tips

In keeping with Christmas tradition, friends and I got together last weekend and headed downtown to celebrate the season.  The temperature was near freezing, so we bundled up in toques, scarves and gloves and braved the crisp air, full of anticipation for a great winter day.  As we arrived to one of my favourite spots in Vancouver, it seemed others had the same idea.  School buses and tour buses lined the streets, parking was scarce, and children hollered with joy as their parents followed with cameras flashing and video cameras rolling.  The main attractions grew such crowds that pedestrians spilled out into the streets.   But here’s the thing.  I wasn’t at a popular holiday venue.  I was standing at the corner of Main and Hastings on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

We live in a remarkable city, overflowing with caring compassionate people who want to make a difference at Christmas.  We often think of those with less than us, and on first thought, it seems like a great idea to head to Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood and offer food and clothing.  And I know from first hand conversations that the residents of this neighbourhood do appreciate items they receive.  In no way to I want to criticize the good intention of Vancouverites.  However I feel a bit compelled to offer some advice on how to help.  This Christmas marks our fifth year working in the Downtown Eastside helping the homeless send cards to family or friends they have lost touch with.  Throughout this journey, I have learned a few things about the community that I hope to share.  If you would like to help the residents of the Downtown Eastside, I applaud you.  It is a neighbourhood rich in story, hardship and heartbreak.  It is also a neighbourhood full of courage, resiliency and glimmers of hope.  If you choose to visit, with good intention, please take the following tips into consideration:

1. Give appropriate gifts using the same logic you use when you gift the ones you love.  Your mother is probably not looking for a size XL man’s jacket.  Your brother is not likely searching for a pink polk-a-dotted lady’s scarf. It is very common to collect warm clothing and distribute it on Hastings Street.  However, if the gift is not suitable, it will likely be sold.  Take the time to pull a fitting item out of the bag and make eye contact when you offer it to the person on the street.  They are much more likely to use it when it is suitable and received with love.

2. Take time.  Take the time to give items out one by one.  Last weekend I watched a group of do-gooders pull up in a bakery style truck.  Rather than displaying their items or handing them out to suitable recipients, they stood in the truck bed and threw items in the air.  As they did this, a crowd surrounded the truck.  With each toss, the homeless scrambled with their arms in the air hoping to catch the item.  It reminded me of a scene from the zoo where the trainer feeds the animals.  Unfortunately the image is burned in my brain – and the only thing that makes it worse was the large video camera filming the episode to capture the act of kindness on film.

3. Respect the neighbourhood. Remember that you are a guest in another community.  Respect the space.  Don’t overcrowd the sidewalks.  Do not take photos of anyone without first asking permission.  Be polite. Be respectful. Make eye contact and say hello.  Park on side streets rather than unloading buses on Hastings.  Walk in groups of 4-6 rather than groups of 40.   Treat the residents like you would want to be treated in your neighbourhood.

4. Use your judgement.  The Downtown Eastside is a diverse neighbourhood – and not everyone on the street is homeless.  Some are employees of the local businesses, others live in trendy lofts popping up in the area yet many are homeless or live in low income housing.  For the most part, if you take the time, you can see the difference.  Take time to see people before handing out goods.  Unfortunately there is a new disturbing trend emerging as the streets clutter with donations.  A few of the local merchants from Chinatown walk the streets with shopping buggies and gather as many items as they can to sell at their shops around the corner on Keefer Street. They will often ask for the full 12 packs of socks, or multiple quantities of what you are providing. Today, I witnessed this with my own eyes.  As I tried to drop off toiletries at the women’s centre, a group of women from Chinatown came in with bags and literally stole dozens of boxes of toothpaste and shampoo and ran. The shelter employees explained this is increasingly common.  Some run to their shops to resell the product, while others use a storage locker in the community to store their collections.  As San Francisco recently coined a similar problem – there seems to be a battle between the needy and the greedy.    If they appear well dressed, well fed, and they are looking for items to re-sell, perhaps you may want to identify someone with greater need.

5. Consider Another Time of Year.  Christmas is a wonderful time to give, and there are many ways to help in our community.  However, if you would like to help the homeless by distributing food, blankets or clothing, I would suggests you choose November, January of February instead.  It is just as cold, and the residents do not receive as much during these months.

6.Volunteer Your Time.  Many shelters or associations need volunteers to help serve meals or prepare dinners.  Contact associations directly to see how you can help.

7. Find out what people need.  Remember the last time you received a gift you would never use?  It was most likely given to you by someone with good intention.  The same thing happens on the DTES.  For example, group after group provide hot chocolate or coffee assuming people are cold and would love this.  What I often hear is that they are dehydrated and would love to have clean drinking water.  Take the time to ask people what they need but don’t usually receive.  When I have asked this question I have received the following suggestions: bananas, meat or any type of protein, water and towels.  However, many have told me that what they really crave but seldom receive is the simple art of conversation.   Engage in heartfelt dialogue.  Be sincere.  From one human to another, wish them a very Merry Christmas.

Thank you for making a difference. Happy Holidays!

Beyond HELLO: Cynthia’s Flower Shop

In Aboriginal culture, it is a common belief that storytelling is the best way to teach children, pass on legends and strengthen relationships and family.  On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, over thirty percent of people struggling with homelessness and addiction are Aboriginal.  Yet, we fail to use storytelling to help them heal.  So often we offer food, clothing and shelter to meet their basic needs.  We forget about the emotional needs.  Recently on Facebook, a news story went viral.  It spoke of two states in the USA that have decided to stop issuing welfare cheques to anyone failing a drug test.  Some friends of mine hit the ‘like button’.  And you know what? I don’t blame them.  I get it.  Why should we as a society pay tax dollars to give money to someone who will spend it on drugs.  They must be making a choice right?   I understand the frustration.  Yet, I wonder, if these friends of mine would hit the ‘like’ button if they understood a little more about addiction.  If we choose to look deeper, we can see that the drugs are not the problem. They are merely an inadequate solution – to a problem that lies deeper – the problem that we really should address.  What I know from working on the Downtown Eastside is this.  Not everybody is homeless, not everybody is an addict, not everybody is sick – but everybody is in pain.   The pain began in a variety of ways.  For some it began as childhood trauma, for others it stems from abuse (sexual, physical or emotional).  Some grew up in ministry care while others were mistreated at residential schools.  Each person has a different story, but what I know from my work over the past five years is that every person living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside feels the pain.  They are not there for the drugs.  They are there for the escape from their reality, and for many, each hit offers temporary pain relief.  They are lonely, they are lost, but they are human, and they matter.  And each of them has a story to tell; a story worth sharing, so we on the outside can understand.

If we truly want to help an individual break the cycle of addiction, then my belief is that we have to change the way we respond.  We need to go ‘Beyond HELLO’ – beyond the basic needs, and start to address the emotional needs.  Just as Aboriginal Culture suggest, storytelling is a powerful way to teach, to heal and to learn.  It empowers the storyteller to find their voice and it captures the listener and leaves them a little different than they were before the story began.  I know these stories have changed me.  I hope they change you too.

 

Month 3 of Beyond HELLO Vancouver – Cynthia’s Flower ShopIMG_1255

It’s now 10 PM and I sit here typing, smiling at the way today’s events unfolded. I am so grateful to my students who help make this project a reality, and to the residents of the Downtown Eastside, who time after time, allow themselves to show courage and vulnerability as they share their stories with us.  Today was no different – yet it had a different beginning.  Usually with ‘Beyond HELLO Vancouver’ we journey to the DTES and take someone for lunch.  Later I sit and type out their story.  However, just before I left my home, I felt ready to write.  This didn’t really make much sense as the experience had yet to begin and I was already running late to pick up Anoop, the student who would join me for the day. However, the need was there and I felt I had to get my thoughts down.  Rather than writing, I used the recording feature on my phone and recorded myself talking.  I recited the paragraphs above that you just read.  Interesting, because at the time, I had no idea whether or not the story we would hear today would have anything to do with Aboriginal culture or storytelling.   Sitting here now writing this, I’m smiling, knowing what I have always known about this project.  It is bigger than me. It is not something I create – but something that seems to unfold. I love that this happens to me, and that I am there to experience it.  Today’s story is about Cynthia, a strong, beautiful Aboriginal woman who offers light and warmth to the Downtown Eastside.  With her permission, here is my interpretation of today’s events and her life story.

Around noon, I picked up my former student Anoop and headed to the Downtown Eastside.  Anoop asked how we would pick the one person to join us for lunch.   I smiled and explained that we don’t really pick – we let someone find us. I let Anoop know we would walk the streets and say hello to people and when we felt like it was the right person, we would ask them to join us for lunch.  We walked up and down Hastings Street for five to ten minutes.  We smiled in recognition to many – many we remember from Christmas’s past where they have written to loved ones with Project HELLO. ‘Steven King’ stood guarding his community garden.  Behind him, a sign attached to the fence read ‘drug free area’ yet attached to the sign is a pocket tray of clean needles.  Not a surprise – as images of contrast are everywhere on Hastings Street.  Fancy cars driving by people with their life’s belongings in shopping carts, yuppie condos built next to shelters, and so many speckles of beauty scattered amongst the dark streets.  As we passed the community garden we saw a barefoot woman, rocking back and forth, leaning on a shopping cart for support.  Her hair was orange and buzz cut, she appeared in pain but high on drugs, yet at the same time, intently focused on the last few pages of a book that she balanced on the shopping cart.  As I walked by I glanced down to see what she was reading.  Pride and Prejudice.  A long and difficult read for a neighborhood where many have only an elementary school education.   I smiled and walked on, unfortunately not knowing until later, that the woman was Cindy – the woman who we reconnected with her daughter in our first month of Beyond HELLO.  I did not recognize her with out her long beautiful hair.  However, knowing Cindy’s boisterous personality with wild, ever-changing emotions, I could not help but smile knowing her drastic change in hair style was likely a spontaneous decision.

As we approached the ‘mall’ which is the roughest block of Hastings (on the North Side between Columbia and Carrall) we passed a lady who I recognized from July.  In month one, this woman had walked passed David and I on the south side of Hastings.  She made a comment to us saying something like “be careful down here – there’s a full moon and they are crazy today!”  We smiled and explained a bit about our project.  She beamed with motherly pride as we shared our work.  We showed her a picture of Cindy and she agreed to take our phone number down in case she saw Cindy before us.  We didn’t have a spare pen so we went with her to the Pigeon Community Bank to use a notepad and pen.  In our talks she told us she used to be called Cindy as well.  Both Cindy and Cindy had gone through re-hab together years ago.  This Cindy had stayed clean.  Deciding that she was moving forward with her life – she left ‘Cindy’ behind – and became Cynthia.  Today as we ran into Cynthia, she recognized me but couldn’t quite remember where from. I reminded her about the help she had offered.  Again she beamed with pride for our work.   I asked if she knew if Cindy was still alive.  She then told me I had just passed her – as she was the one with the orange buzz cut.  She let me know Cindy is not doing well as her leg is very infected yet she now refuses to wear shoes as she walks Hastings.  A part of me wanted to run back and say hi, yet a part of me wanted to stay exactly where I was, intrigued by Cynthia’s strength and wanting to know more about her own journey and her resilience to battle through life’s most difficult hurdles.  I asked if she would like to share her story with us over lunch.  In a split second, she eagerly agreed and together Anoop, Cynthia and I walked down the street planning on dining at Save On Meats.

As we approached, we saw that Save On Meats was boarded up, closed for renovations.  However, next to it, a newer restaurant was open.  It is called ‘Lost and Found’ café.  The name alone seemed like a natural fit for our project, so we entered the café.  Inside we discovered a café celebrating world travel, art and philanthropy.  One wall displayed black and white portraits of the DTES amongst images of other hardships around the world.  The centre of the restaurant offered a variety of gifts, all backed by a big sign saying ‘Have a Heart’ – with proceeds from all items going to charitable organizations.    Cynthia, Anoop and I ordered lunch and found a table near the window.  A table where looking one direction showed images of Hastings Street, yet looking the other way offered the cozy sanctuary of a modern café.

IMG_1253

Our lunch arrived and Cynthia began to share her story.

Cynthia is a citizen of the To-quaht Band, one of the smallest First Nations, situated between Ucluelet and Port Alberni.  She grew up in Port Alberni on the reserve, with few restrictions.  As she recalls, you could drink and party at any age.  By grade six, she was drinking alcohol and stopped attending school.  Her mother would come in and out of her life, but spent most of her time in Seattle.  Her father worked in logging so he was not able to be around much.  Her mother’s parents served in a parental role raising Cynthia and her siblings.  Cynthia and her grandmother had a special bond. Even though there were eight children in the house, her grandmother would always wake up Cynthia in the middle of the night when she had a special story to share.  She would put on her kettle, make some tea and wake Cynthia saying “I don’t like sitting alone – let me tell you a story”.  Cynthia relished these moments and would awake from deep sleeps to hear her grandmother’s stories: stories her grandmother passed down from her own childhood. I smiled and told Cynthia a little about my grandparents and the special memories I have spending time with them.  I understand completely the bond she speaks of.  Cynthia also shared a story of a dream she had one night as a child – a dream that one day she would have her own flower shop.  Cynthia found comfort in the images of such a dream.

Cynthia’s grandfather on her father’s side was Chief in Ucluelet and therefore some of Cynthia’s childhood was marked with ceremonial tradition.  When she entered womanhood at age twelve her band celebrated that very day with a ‘Coming of Age’ party.  Her brothers dressed in wolf regalia and were instructed to be next to her – two on her left and two on her right.  They had to follow her for the day and sit together at the community hall.  Cynthia remembers this as a powerful experience yet also a challenging day for a twelve-year-old to endure when really she wanted to run and play.

Unfortunately these days did not last. After her grandpa on her mother’s side died, the ministry stepped in and found new homes for Cynthia and her siblings.  Some went to live with aunts, while Cynthia and one of her sisters were put into foster care in Cumberland BC.  They were placed with a Caucasian family who treated them well and had strong religious values.  After about four months of living with them, the family let the girls know they were going to make a drive to Port Alberni to return bottles at the bottle depot.  They asked the girls if they would like to accompany them and visit their relatives in Port Alberni.  The girls agreed and travelled to the reserve to visit.  Once arriving, her friend Danny’s family hid the girls so they never returned into foster care.  This left Cynthia experiencing a range of emotion.   Why did the ministry need to find her a new home in the first place? Why was it so easy to escape? Why didn’t she ever hear from her foster family again?  As Cynthia struggled to find answers, she found comfort in a relationship with her friend Danny.  When she turned 16, her father asked her and Danny to come for dinner.  During dinner he let her know it was time for her to get married.  She was married to Danny for six years, yet by age 22 she needed to escape the cycle of drinking and abuse.  She recalls one evening when Danny dragged her out of a community dance by pulling her hair.  Danny’s older brother stepped in and beat Danny threatening to hurt him again if he ever beat his wife.  Ironically Danny’s brother had also been beating his wife, however, when he saw his younger brother repeat the cycle it helped him stop his own violence.  At 22 Cynthia knew she needed to leave the reserve to feel safe.  Danny and her had two children but Cynthia was raising them on her own.  When Danny returned to town she let him know it was his turn and she needed to take care of herself.  She headed to East Vancouver, following the path of her thirteen year old sister.

When Cynthia arrived in East Vancouver (29 years ago) she played a motherly role to her younger sister who was actively using drugs.  Cynthia was determined to stay clean and managed to do so for two years.  One evening, Cynthia and her boyfriend went for drinks with another couple.  The other couple offered them T’s and R’s  (T’s and R’s are also referred to as poor man’s heroin.  The T stands for Talwin, a painkiller,  and the R for Ritalin, a stimulant.  When injected together they produce a high similar to the effects of cocaine mixed with heroin).  To Cynthia’s surprise her boyfriend said yes, letting her know for the first time that he had used in the past.  Wanting to know what her sister experienced, Cynthia decided to try her first hit.  The experience made her incredibly sick yet she recalls waking up the next day feeling like her mind had taken over her body and she wanted more.  Her sister prostituted to earn money to buy drugs and pay her rent.  Eventually her sister and the sister’s boyfriend told Cindy she needed to start contributing.  She needed to pay money too.   Her sister convinced her to turn her first trick and work the corner.  Craving the high of T’s and R’s Cynthia decided to work the corner once to get the money she needed.  Today, 29 years later Cynthia’s eyes watered as she tells us about her very first night working the street.  She had never felt so much shame.  Despite the money she earned she remembers bypassing the drugs and coming home to the bath washing herself and drowning herself in tears. Her need to feel clean surpassed her need for the drugs, yet a cycle had begun – a cycle hard to escape.  Like many girls working the streets, Cynthia eventually learned how to separate herself from her experiences.  She found a job cleaning for an elderly couple, shopping, cleaning and running errands.  At night she would work the streets.  One day the man she was cleaning for stopped her and said good morning.  When she replied pleasantly he said “oh – it’s nice to see you – I can distinctly tell the difference between the three of you – I can see in your eyes who you are today”.  Like many sexual abuse victims Cynthia began to take on different personalities as an escape from the pain.

At one point, Cynthia freed herself from the DTES and returned home to see her grandmother.  Cynthia was addicted and down to 80 pounds.  When she returned home, she slept for days withdrawing from the T’s and R’s.  Her grandmother wanted to know why she was sleeping so much, and then all of a sudden eating so much.  She told her grandmother everything. Her grandmother didn’t judge – instead it brought them even closer.  Cynthia would sit for hours at the big window in her grandma’s front room watching an eagle.  One day her grandmother sat beside her…

“Cindy I want you to make me a promise”

“What grandma?”

“No Cindy – I need you to promise first”

“What?”

“Promise me first and then I can tell you”

“Ok grandma – I promise”

“When I am gone, I don’t want you to ever come back here”

“Ok grandma I promise”

And so Cynthia left – and again returned to the DTES of Vancouver.  Torn between two lives – a Nation with family history yet plagued by alcoholism or her sister in Vancouver and the cycle of addiction.

For 29 years, Cynthia has survived the streets of the Downtown Eastside.  She has survived prostitution, heroin, cocaine, T’s and R’s.  Yet somehow she has overcome most her battles.  Five years ago she successfully completed re-hab. She chooses to stay in the neighbourhood she knows, perhaps because it is home, perhaps because she is drawn to stay. In Cynthia’s words “This street grabs ahold of you – the demon is the rock(cocaine)”.  Yet Cynthia has beat most of her battles and now feels compelled to help others.

Just last month, at age 55, Cynthia went back to school.  She attends 3 days a week learning basic computer skills and eventually Aboriginal law.  Each day she walks Hastings Street while reciting positive affirmations in her mind. She stops to give hugs to so many who need it.  Last year, as she walked the street of her neighbourhood a man from a church group stopped her to talk.  He could tell she was a part of the neighbourhood but that she was clean.  He asked her why she stayed.  Cynthia told him she didn’t know.  He then said “I can see why you are here – you have something important to do here.  People will listen to you. You have a story to tell.”   As she told us this story, Cynthia beamed with pride as she has believed this to be true since that day and now she is starting to see it happen.  Her poem “Goodbye Letter to Myself” was recently published in a local magazine.  She has been interviewed on TV and recently she took it upon herself to speak to a group of Aboriginal youth visiting the DTES.  I told her about my blog and asked if I could share her story.  With pride she smiled “you don’t have to ask me twice”.  As I told her more about Project HELLO I asked if she would ever be interested in joining me to present to youth or to educators.  I shared with her that I have a similar goal, as I want to share our story to help others understand the DTES and understand how students can make a difference.  I mentioned that I would be presenting the THESA conference in October and wondered if she would like to join me.  With a smile as wide as a child racing towards a finish line Cynthia whole heartedly agreed saying today was meant to happen.  She then asked me my astrological sign and smiled as if she already knew when she discovered we are both Leo.  As we finished our lunch, she sat in contentment and offered this “we met for a reason – there is no such things as a coincidence.”  I told her I couldn’t agree more.

I asked Cynthia two final questions.  First, I asked what she would like others to understand about the DTES.  Here’s what she had to share.  “It’s not what people think.  The people down here are real.  They may be messed up, but what they say is real and true.  Before you judge, try to walk a day in their shoes”.

I then asked Cynthia where she plans to be in five years.  Despite her promise to her grandma, Cynthia feels compelled to help her band.  First she will stay in Vancouver to finish course work and improve her employment skills and understanding of Aboriginal law.  In time she will make her way back to Port Alberni.  Her Nation, To-quaht has recently reached a treaty settlement with the government and they are beginning to develop their oceanfront land and create employment opportunities.  Cynthia will use the funds she receives from the treaty for retirement and to set up an RESP for her grandson.  Cynthia smiled with adult confidence and then with a second thought her eyes sparkled ands she said “or maybe I’ll follow through with my dream as a child and open up my flower shop”.

I can’t help but wonder if Cynthia’s flower shop already exists in a metaphorical way.  In Canada’s darkest neighbourhood she is light.  Her hugs, her stories and her courage to make a positive difference offer beauty and serenity just like a fresh cut bouquet of flowers.

Kids These Days

It’s Sunday morning, the sun is shining, I just finished a run with a friend, I have Starbucks in hand and my kids are off on a weekend adventure with their grandparents so one would think that my head would be full of positive thoughts.  For the most part it is, yet there is this nagging topic I feel compelled to write about.  So, unlike most of my blog posts, this one may come across as more of a rant.

So – here’s what’s on my mind…  I have this little pet peeve, and I just can’t shake it.  Like my otherwise calm neighbour who becomes a different person when he’s on the road with ‘bad drivers’, I find I can feel my blood boil when a certain expression arises.  There is nothing that frustrates me more than the moment when you are mid conversation with other adults and someone says “Kids these days,” assuming everyone will nod in agreement supporting the notion that society is doomed with today’s youth.

To be fair, I understand why the general population may have a poor impression of youth.  I get it. Bad news sells and it is far more likely that criminal activity or social disruption will dominate the headlines.  This notion isn’t true just for teens, it’s true for all ages and an unfortunate reality of the way we allow media to be portrayed.  Believe me, if a newspaper or TV network decided to cover only positive news stories, or the triumph and heroes that emerge with each disaster I would be the first to subscribe.

I also get that I often find myself in conversation with my neighbours, who are truly wonderful people, but whose careers offer a different perspective.  I have re-named our street emergency row as our street would vacate quickly if our city had a crisis as each house seems to have either a fireman, police officer, paramedic or hazmat team member.  With these industries responding to crises, I understand that they are not able to get an accurate perception of average kids or teens.

I understand that my view is also limited in scope as I have not researched all trends in youth behaviour, however I can speak confidently about the type of kids I get to work with on a regular basis.  As a vice principal, part of my job includes the responsibility of student discipline. Yet, unlike the movies would suggest, discipline does not dominate the day.  Why?  Two reasons really.  First of all, we don’t have many kids misbehaving.  Second, when we do, we see it as an opportunity for the student to learn from the situation, repair relationships and leave the situation strengthened so they are unlikely to find themselves in the same situation again.  Our schools are not plagued by bad kids.  We have great kids, who just like adults make some mistakes.  More often than not, it is hurt kids who hurt other kids.  Getting to the root of what is driving their behaviour and helping them heal allows our kids to learn from their mistakes and move forward.

So, if my day is not spent dealing with rowdy teenagers reeking havoc, then what are our teens really like?  This year, I worked the first half of the school year at Dr. Charles Best in Coquitlam, and the second half of the year at Thomas Haney in Maple Ridge.  In June I was fortunate to be part of two graduation ceremonies recognizing the accomplishments of the amazing kids leaving school ready to embrace the world.

When I look at our graduates, here is what I see:  They are fun, they are polite, they are intelligent, they are curious and they embrace the world beyond high school with a sense of curiosity and composure unlike when I was in school.  Unlike the past, they understand that they will likely have multiple career paths and the job they make end up in may not even exist today.  They are technologically savvy, the understand that the questions are just as important as the answers, and they embrace that learning is a lifelong process, rather than a rite of passage they have now completed.  They love their friends, family and community.  They balance the challenges of social media and live with both the communication and connection benefits that it brings, but also the exposure and immediacy that it offers.  When I think back to my own teenage years I can only imagine how different things would have been if every one of my friends had a phone in their pocket with a built in camera and access to the internet.  Let’s just say I’m happy my close friends knew some things about me that we didn’t capture on film and share with the world! I’m sure most adults can relate!

If we look to statistics, the Mcleary Foundation confirms that youth today are far less likely to smoke than youth a decade ago, 84% are in good or excellent health, drug use is not on the rise, and pregnancy rates are stable at less than 2%.  Major injuries have declined and most injuries that occur happen during sports.  Statistics Canada confirms that crime rates continue to decline across Canada, reaching a new low matching levels not seen since 1972. BC has the second lowest youth crime rate in the country with rates falling since 1991.  A study conducted by the BC Ministry and Representative for Children and Youth concludes less than 2% of children regularly present intensive behaviour challenges in schools.  However, children who have been abused become twice as likely to commit crimes, again confirming the notion that kids who  act out may be doing so based on their own hurt.  When our schools and families teach social emotional learning as well as curriculum we can help all students flourish.  We truly have great kids.

Kids today have a sense of responsibility far greater in scope than when I graduated.   They are global citizens, care deeply about recycling, volunteering, taking care of the environment and giving back to the less fortunate.  The kids I worked with this year spent time giving back at local elementary schools, homeless shelters, seniors homes, community events, sporting events and hospitals.  Many have helped raise funds through organizations such as Me to We helping impoverished nations, and some have even travelled to developing countries to help build schools and improve the access to clean water.  They smile, use manners and open doors for people.

As an example of what kids are really like, I’ve included links to two student blogs.

Selin Jessa, a graduate from Dr. Charles Best, is making headway around the world with her scientific research and commitment to leaving the world in an even better place than she found it.  Her blog ‘Thinking Out Loud’ gives a glimpse at her impressive journey.

Miranda Tymoschuk, a grade 11 student at Thomas Haney has overcome more adversity than any child should have to face, yet she uses it as motivation to improve conditions for others.  Please click here to see her story and her current fundraising efforts. http://ilaughlovedream.blogspot.ca

While these two students are the outliers with phenomenal accomplishments, they are not alone.  During graduation ceremonies, the grads from Dr. Charles Best and Thomas Haney were recognized for their accomplishments in academics, athletics, the arts, and in service, earning an impressive scholarship total of over one million dollars.

I am humbled to work with today’s youth as I get to learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our kids are great.  Canada continues to be ranked as one of the top three education systems in the world, and we continue to focus on educating both the mind and the heart.   Our schools, our parents, and our communities are doing a great job. Unfortunately, that’s the news that doesn’t always make the headlines.  However, this is the story we should be telling.   Next time you are mid-conversation and someone mutters the expression “Kids these days,” please do me a favour, and  respond by saying, “Yes, they are pretty amazing aren’t they!”

OK – enough of my rant.  I’m off to enjoy this amazing sunny Sunday.

Redefining School: Thomas Haney’s Self Directed Model

Imagine you are on an airplane, mid-flight, and you strike up a conversation with the passenger beside you.  Together you start comparing high school as you know it from your hometown.  If you are from BC, you would likely share some personal experience while outlining the basic framework: 30 students per classroom, 1 teacher per room, different curriculum for each course, 4 classes per day, 5 days of school per week, 8 courses per year, bells to dictate start and end times, etc.  Although your description may include some variations on school culture and unique attributes, the basic learning environment would likely sound similar regardless of who was telling the story…unless you are from Thomas Haney!

Six weeks ago I began a new position as Vice Principal at Thomas Haney Secondary.  I have held off blogging about the school until now as I wanted to have time to experience the culture and understand the model before sharing it publicly.  Although I am certainly not an expert, I feel confident describing what makes Thomas Haney so incredibly unique!

Thomas Haney is part of the Canadian Coalition for Self Directed Learning. Following a unique model, each student is on a personalized learning program where they have the ability to explore their passions and focus on their strengths as they work towards graduation.  Students develop competencies necessary for life after graduation including communication skills, planning, an understanding of their learning style, organization, negotiation and technological literacy skills.

When students begin grade eight, they become part of a multi-grade Teacher Advisory (TA) Group.  Essentially, this becomes their home base or family at school.  TA meets at the start and end of each day.  Students stay with the same teacher for TA throughout their five years of high school. This allows for very strong relationships between teachers and students, and allows parents to have a key contact at the school for communicating about their child.  The teacher advisor is in frequent communication with the other teachers to stay informed of the progress the students in TA are making in their coursework.

Each day, students use their planner to set their learning goals for the day.  They use the morning TA time to determine what they are going to work on, where they will be working, and what their weekly goals are.  The teacher advisor signs off on the plan after discussing it with the students.

Each course at Thomas Haney is divided into twenty learning guides.  As students complete learning guides, they track their progress in their planner to communicate with their TA and their parents.  Teachers from each course will pace the course and communicate with students about which learning guide they should be working on.  The school is not self paced, though the structure and learning is self-directed so that the students have opportunities to decide what to work on when, and how to demonstrate their learning.  This often leads to creative explorations where students follow their passions  and engage in projects that meet the learning outcomes of multiple courses at the same time.

As students progress through the grades, their schedules allow them more flexibility, and more control over their own learning.  In grade eight, all students are in set classes all day.  Each of the eight set classes meet three times per week.  Many choose to participate in our grade eight laptop pod where every student has a laptop with the necessary resources instead of a bag full of textbooks.  On Mondays, grade eight’s join all other grades in a one hour ‘Y’ block where students choose where to work and what to work on.

In grade nine, each course meets two times per week instead of three. The remaining blocks become work blocks, where students plan their own day and choose their work areas.  Each department has a ‘Great Hall’ where students can choose to work.  Teachers also have flexible schedules with a mix of set classes or time in the great halls supporting learning.  In grades ten through twelve, most courses meet for one set class per week with the expectation that the student attend the great hall at least two times per week to work on that particular course.

What is the result?  Well, here are some of my first impressions.  First of all, the teachers have an increased amount of time to collaborate as they are often in shared work spaces that lend themselves to natural collaboration.  Next, the relationship between students and teachers is very strong.  As you walk through the great halls you see teachers sitting next to students working one on one or in small groups, allowing for individual attention and meaningful dialogue.

What surprised me most, is how able the students are at handling the increased responsibility.  Almost all students rise to the challenge and as a result, there are very few behaviour issues.  As you walk through the school you see students from all grades working in the same areas, helping one another, and working with the teachers to guide their learning.  While working on curriculum, students are also developing competencies that range from time management to creativity.  As an example, just last week, two students who had never worked together before began talking and decided to create this amazing spoken poem about social justice. They will share it live at the upcoming Maple Ridge Social Justice conference.  They will also share this with their Socials and English teachers to see what learning outcomes this project meets.

The open structure and flexible scheduling also lends itself nicely to unique school events during the day such as the recent ‘Poetry Slam’ contest pictured here photothat took place in our English Great Hall.  Next week for spirit week, all students dress in colours representing their TA’s, and participate in a variety of events culminating with the annual Gym Riot where the colours compete in friendly competition.

Finally, what I have recognized in my short time here, is that the staff and students of Thomas Haney absolutely love their school.  They are incredibly proud of the unique model, and appreciate learning in a way that models what we see in the changing workplace.  Graduates leave feeling ready to embrace the world, with the competencies necessary to navigate their next adventure in life.  And, if that next adventure finds them on a flight, I can assure you they will have lots to talk about when they spark up a  conversation addressing what high school is like in their hometown.

Love Is Louder Than Bullying: Why I Believe in Restorative Justice

Mother Teresa once said “If you hold an anti-war rally, I shall not attend.  If you hold a peace-rally invite me.”  As we approach Anti-Bullying day, I am hopeful that we will use the day to reflect and think of our own actions, and what we can do to model appropriate behavior.  I wish that we could re-frame the day with a new label, focusing on the behaviors we want to see.

As an educator I am hesitant to say I don’t like the term anti-bullying because I worry others will misunderstand my intention.  In no way do I support bullying behavior, however I am an advocate for positive approaches to behavior where the goal is to repair harm rather than assign blame.   Why?  I think Todd Whitaker answers it best in this video clip “What Great Teachers Do Differently”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXCl2fMsdTU

Put simply, hurt kids will hurt other kids.  If we focus on punishing the child, we teach shame and the chance of that student hurting others rises.  When we label students as bullies we focus our efforts on determining who is guilty and who is innocent.  This stems from our criminal justice system so it is a natural way of thinking for most of us.  However, I challenge you to ask yourself this: Do you believe our criminal justice system strengthens individuals and helps improve their skills before reintegrating them into society? I’m assuming most of you will answer no.

Last Friday I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on Restorative Justice during a professional development conference.  As a teacher, counselor, parent and administrator I am a huge supporter or restorative approaches as a method of responding to behavior.  Restorative Justice is a model based on control theory, which centers around the belief that the only person’s behavior that we can truly control is our own.

To help explain the model, I will use a real example that I helped mediate between two students (though I will change the names).

Sally came to the office to report her wallet stolen from the school change room.  She hadn’t locked up her belongings and when she returned from PE her wallet was gone and her bus pass and money were missing.  After looking at the security cameras we developed a list of students who went in and out of the change room during that period.  Through conversation with Amy, a student who should not have been in the change room that block, we were able to determine that Amy had taken the wallet.

From a punitive perspective our goal would be to determine:

-What rule has been broken (respecting others property)

-Who is guilty? (Amy)

-What the consequence should be (likely a suspension)

From a restorative perspective our goal would be to determine:

-Who has been harmed? (Sally)

-What relationships have been damaged? (Sally and Amy’s, Amy and the school as trust has been broken, etc)

-How can relationships be repaired? (Amy taking responsibility, Amy accepting a related consequence, Amy understanding the impact her actions had on Sally and the school.

-How can Amy learn from this situation and return to the group strengthened?

In this particular situation, I will never forget the impact the mediation had.  Amy agreed to return the wallet, but had already spent the money.  She was in ministry care and struggled to come up with the funds.  Rather than having her re-pay Sally, the school offered to re-pay Sally while Amy volunteered time at the school to pay back the school.  Amy also met with our liaison officer to understand the severity of shoplifting or stealing from others.  However, the most powerful moment came when I brought the two girls together.  Amy was able to apologize for her actions, but also explain why she had made such a bad decision based on her financial situation.  Sally was able to accept the apology, but also explain to Amy that her family had struggled financially throughout her childhood.  She was able to explain the choices she had made rather than stealing.  Watching the girls talk openly, they were able to understand more about one another.  Sally got her money back and Amy was able to take responsibly and return to the group strengthened.  Amy did not steal from students again the rest of her days in high school.

Tomorrow is anti-bullying day.  I challenge you to see the day in a positive light. Remember that as adults, we are all teachers.  When we see bullying, let’s focus on the teachable moment to strengthen our children rather than focusing our energy on assigning blame.  As coined by the Coquitlam School District, “Love is Louder Than Bullying”.

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.