The Power of Why: 101 New Year’s Resolutions

Maybe I’m feeling inspired from our recent trip to Disneyland, or maybe it’s the excitement I feel about beginning a new job next month, but as we begin a new year and I look inward to create meaningful resolutions, I find I am fascinated with the topic of creativity and innovation.

I have just finished reading The Power of Why by Amanda Lang and look forward to power of whyborrowing ideas from the book to spark creativity and innovation in our schools. As a child, Lang decided she wanted to be an architect. Her family supported her career goal and very early on she knew the steps to take to reach her goal. Unfortunately as she reached adulthood, she asked ‘how’ questions to reach the next step but didn’t stop to ask herself ‘why’. Eventually she realized that she had much more passion for the stories within the buildings rather than the buildings themselves, and she changed directions to explore a career in Journalism. All of a sudden all night assignments became invigorating rather than exhausting and she knew she was on the right path.  She now co-hosts the Lang & O’Leary Exchange CBC and is the senior business correspondent for CBC News.

While this book focusses most on the business world I believe there are many valuable lessons that we can take away and apply to education.

  • Shift our priorities. Rather than trying to develop creativity while meeting prescribed learning outcomes, what if creativity becomes an outcome itself?  Developing creativity as a learning outcome or competency allows us to remain curious, seek to improve, ask questions, and look at problems from new angles.  In essence, those who think creatively will continue to learn.
  • Find ways to preserve child-like wonder and reignite natural curiosity. In twin studies, research suggests that 80% of IQ is related to genetics but only 30% of our creativity.  This suggests that 70% of our creativity comes from environmental factors and can be learned. Unfortunately it can also be diminished if it is not encouraged.
  • Focus on the questions, not just a desired answer.  Promote questioning to develop divergent thinking.  A shift to develop a curious mentality versus an expert mentality allows students the ability to understand how they learn, and develops a skill set that will be beneficial in the future.
  • Look at education through the eyes of the customer.  Private schools do a great job at this, promoting their strengths and the benefits the customer will receive.  Unfortunately the public system often turns to the media to highlight what’s not working in schools rather than highlighting our tremendous strengths and opportunities as one of the best education systems in the world. To stay innovative, we need to continually improve while focusing on our strengths.
  • Reflect. If we want to be creative and curious in our work, then we need to start with ourselves.  People who have the courage to self-reflect and ask questions of themselves create opportunities for growth and positive change.  Lang warns that those who focus on routine and comfort may wake up one day only to recognize they are in the wrong career or wrong relationship.
  • Start with individual ideas and then work together. The most creative ideas develop when students have the time to brainstorm alone first and then bring their ideas to the group. Beginning as a group reduces creativity for a variety of reasons including self-censorship, groupthink, taking turns, laziness and a tendency to promote harmony over creativity.
  • We need to teach our students that one of the best ways to stay actively engaged in their learning when they feel they are losing focus is to stop and ask a question.  Students with ADHD have a natural aptitude for applying ideas from one topic to another – a gift in innovative thinking.
  • Shift thinking from ‘How’ to ‘Why’.  Rather than asking how we are going to accomplish our goals, or get our daily, monthly or yearly tasks done, stop and ask why.  Why do students and parents choose our school? Why do we do things the way we do? Often those who have lived in multiple countries or worked in various industries have a learned ability to ask why and look at situations with fresh eyes. Do we take time to stop and get the perspective from those around us?

So – as we enter a new year, I have decided to set resolutions from a different angle. Rather than asking what I want to do this year, I will look a bit deeper with each resolution and ask why. Gaining a deeper understanding of my goals will help me reflect on what I truly value and what I hope to accomplish. To set resolutions that matter, I plan to use a technique Lang describes that is used by many Fortune 500 companies to encourage innovation: Participants at creativity retreats are asked to generate a list of 101 goals. This seems like a rather long list, but the length has purpose as the goals that are harder to think of often require more stretch or deeper exploration into who we want to be. Goals that are further down the list are often more creative and unique.  Once completed, participants are asked to narrow their list to their top fifteen goals.  More often than not, goals near the end of 101 list make their way to the Top 15.

I am inspired by this idea, and will try this in order to set my New Year’s Resolutions for 2013. And like a child with natural curiousity, I will ask myself a lot of questions, understanding why and why not.  Although I have yet to complete this activity (that’s tomorrow’s task), I have a sneaking suspicion I already know one of my top goals for 2013….  I will awaken the three year old child within me and approach life from a curious perspective, not afraid to ask Why or Why Not.  As Lang concludes “asking questions makes life richer, more interesting, more fulfilling and more complete.  Better.  That’s the power, and ultimately the purpose, of Why”.

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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.

Teeter Tottering with Balance

It’s Monday afternoon, all of the neighbourhood kids are curled up on our couch watching a movie, and I’m feeling rejuvenated after a great four day weekend.  I made the conscious decision to ‘not work’ for the four day weekend, and spend time focusing on family, friends and the to-do list.  It’s amazing how much we were able to get done with an extra two days off.  The house is clean, groceries bought and we had the opportunity to enjoy some family time, outdoor walks, some Christmas shopping and a date night.  We also finally found some time to develop a workout schedule to get our fitness routine back on track.  Since I declared this a ‘no work’ weekend, I had initially planned to take the week off blogging as well, however I thought I would write a few words about balance, and what it means to me, as it has been on my mind this weekend.

From the outside, I’m willing to bet that many people do not see my life as ‘balanced’.  I work long hours and have two young children at home.  However, I also have a fantastic husband who works at our boys’ elementary school as a Special Education Assistant so he has the ability to walk to and from school with our kids.  He is able to do the regular morning routine, pack the lunches and juggle play dates and after school activities.  We are also blessed with two amazing sets of parents who want to play an active role in our kids’ lives, and offer to take care of them or take them to activities as much as they can.   For us, our schedule works.  Some weeks are crazier than others, and many days I arrive home minutes before my husband has to leave for soccer practice or a shift at his second job at the Fire Hall.  However, our schedule works for us and we all enjoy what we do.   

I know that I am very fortunate to have the support system I do to let me work long hours when needed.  I know that my kids are growing up in a rich environment surrounded by people that love them.  When I think of my own childhood, I was fortunate to have a similar situation.  Although I grew up in a single parent home, it did not feel that way as my mom’s extended family was always there.  I had an amazing relationship with my grandparents and did not feel I missed out despite my mom’s busy schedule.

It’s interesting how many comments I receive from others about my job.  People make comments all the time about the ‘time away from my kids’.  When I decided to apply for an administration position, many people suggested I should wait until my kids are older.  I often wonder if men in the same position get these comments.  Maybe.  Not so sure.  Last month I had someone come up and tell me that I should not be blogging because I was taking even more away from my kids.  I found that really interesting.  Would the same person think critically if I had said I watched TV after my kids went to bed?

You may wonder why I started this blog talking about balance only to defend my busy schedule.  Well – after spending four days re-charging, I have come to realize that balance means something completely different to each individual.  Balance is something that cannot be prescribed but rather something we can obtain when we get to know ourselves well and understand what we need to bring out our best self.  Some workshops on balance will use a balance wheel to help people recognize the commitment they are making to different areas of their life ranging from spirituality, career, relationships, exercise, mental health etc.  However, my experience has been that everyone leaves these workshops recognizing that they are not doing enough in at least one area of their life.

This weekend, when I thought about balance, I realize that I do not see balance as a wheel, but more like a teeter totter.  For the teeter totter to work, I need to balance the two sides: my personal and my professional lives.  The centre is made up of who I am and what I value and it keeps the teeter totter together.  If I put too much weight on either side, the other side becomes off balance as well.  I know that I have often said I am a better mom because I work (and I don’t mean to judge stay at home moms at all…. In fact, I give them credit because I have no idea how they do it! That really is the hardest job in the world!).  I have also come to recognize that I am a better vice principal when I spend time with family.  Time together nurtures my soul and recharges me.   When the two sides are balanced, both sides take flight and the teeter totter works.  Sometimes one side is higher than the other, but in general they work together to create balance. 

Just like a teeter totter, when I put too much weight on one side, I don’t get better at what I do… instead I eventually hit the ground.  This is true with both my personal and my professional life.  My husband will be the first to admit that I start to act a bit nutty by the end of summer.  After re-organizing closets and paying way too much attention to minor details of life, it is definitely time for me to get back to work.  Similarly, when work gets crazy it’s important for me to remember that putting too much time in, doesn’t really help anyone, as really it just leads to an eventual crash where one side hits the ground. To make good decisions, I need to maintain a sense of balance.   I know that when I take time to run or workout, I go to work with more energy and a more positive disposition.  When I schedule ‘downtime’ and turn the computer off for a weekend, I am able to feel recharged much more so than a weekend where I am sneaking work in at night.  I need to recognize that my job will never be done, so choosing to stop working needs to be a conscious choice.   I once heard someone say that every time we say yes, we are saying no to something else.  This has stuck with me and I often ask myself what I am saying no too.  I try not to say ‘no’ to my family more than I need to.

Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver, recently wrote in his blog about President Obama.  President Obama has made the conscious decision to try to be with him family by 6:30 PM each night.  Upon reflection, Chris recognized that if the president can reach this goal more nights than not, then a superintendent of schools should be able to do the same.  I admire this goal, not only because it allows for more time with family, but also because it sends a positive message about leadership.  I think it is important to model what we expect from others.  If we don’t want students and teachers working around the clock at the expense of their personal commitments, then I believe it’s important to model the same.

Perhaps what I recognize most about balance is that each of us is very different, and has different needs to be our best selves.  For one person, balance might mean staying at home to raise children, and for others it might mean working part time.  For some, depending on personal commitments and their stage in the life cycle, balance may be possible while working over sixty hours per week.  Balance cannot be prescribed because there isn’t a formula that works for everyone.  However, I believe each of us should take time to reflect on what we need to achieve our best.  For some yoga and a good book sound appealing while others prefer the adrenaline rush that comes from extreme sports or roller coaster rides.  The activity itself is not important, but rather the outcome.   Recognizing what makes us feel alive helps us discover what we need to nourish our spirit and reach our personal sense of balance, rather than conforming to others opinion of what balance looks like.  Balance comes in different shapes and sizes.  So dig deep, figure out what you need to take flight and let both sides of your teeter totter get some air.

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.

The 5 F’s for Fabulous Meetings….

As the weekend comes to a close, I sit here reflecting on the past few days, fully appreciating the professional development I was able to participate in.  In just three days, I was able to learn about anxiety with Dr. Lynn Miller, ask myself if I am a multiplier with Liz Wiseman, improve my social media and blogging skills with Grant Frend, question how we use awards with Chris Wejr,  focus on Mental Health in Kids with Keli Anderson, and shift my thinking around instructional technology with David Warlick.  I was also able to experience something new  by participating in pro-d that I did not attend as I made an attempt to ‘lurk and learn’, joining in Twitter conversations with my colleagues at the CPVPA Conference in Whistler as they explored networked leadership with George Couros.  A shift has occurred and professional development no longer feels like something that happens on designated days, but rather a way of learning on a continuous basis, connecting and sharing with others. 

After three great days, I have new knowledge, a greater professional network, and inspiring ideas.  However, as I reflect on the weekend, what I am most cognizant of is the feeling I have inside… I feel connected, inspired, full of new ideas, and excited to try new things when I return to school on Monday.      As I enjoy the positive energy that comes with these feelings, I stop and asked myself, “Is this the way teachers feel when they leave staff meetings?”  Unfortunately I know the answer.  I asked myself another hard question.  “Do we design staff meetings the same way we design great lessons?” And again, I know the answer is no.  If we believe we are a community of professional learners, then perhaps we need make our best effort to model great teaching with our staff.  

As I brainstorm what makes a fabulous meeting, I have put together a list of ideas and questions that I hope will help lay the foundation.  To organize my thoughts, I have come up with ‘The 5 F’s for Fabulous Meetings’.

The 5 F’s for Fabulous Meetings…. 

FOOD

Let’s wake up our brains.  In so many meetings we offer coffee and pastries.  The coffee dehydrates us and the carbohydrates put us to sleep.  We know from our understanding of Brain Compatible Learning that we learn best when we are hydrated and consume brain compatible foods such as almonds, berries, whole grains, and protein rich foods. (I would add broccoli to the list because of its super-food qualities but I’m pretty sure a meeting has never gotten better by adding broccoli).   Let’s mix up the menu so we are ready to learn.  

FUN

I am a firm believer that we are not learning when we are not having fun.  When we are interested and engaged we want to learn more.  Find ways to build laughter into a meeting. Laughter is contagious, spreads happiness and reduces stress.   Not only does it boost energy levels, it relaxes us, brings focus, and leaves people wanting more.

Use icebreakers, games and group activities to build teamwork.  Create an environment where staff appreciate one another and have an opportunity to learn from each other’s strengths.  Find ways to connect as a staff so that everyone feels like they are part of the school.  Start with 50/50 draws where the profit is donated to a scholarship fund for your school. 

 In the workshop I attended on mental health, the McCreary Centre confirmed that a student’s connectedness to school is the 2nd most important factor in developing resiliency (after family connectedness).  I would assume the same is true for adults, and connectedness to a career would likely be one of the most influential factors to adult mental health.   Make sure meetings allow for staff to get to know each other to build cohesiveness. Happy teachers = happy kids.

FOCUS

No one wants to have their time wasted. Start meetings on time.  If possible, end early.  Most people prefer meetings that end a little early to those that start late.

Staff meetings are typically run at the end of the school day.  This means that from a marketing perspective themain competitor is free time where teachers have the autonomy to choose whether they run extra-curricular teams, assess student work, connect with colleagues or leave work to attend to personal and family commitments.   In other words, we have some stiff competition.  We need to keep this in mind and make sure that we create meetings that are meaningful, learning focused and efficient.

Plan the agenda like you would plan a great lesson.  Ask yourself what the learning outcomes are for the meeting.  Have a great beginning, collaborative time to learn together and a great ending.

Expect staff to be focused as well.  We expect students to actively engage.  Expect the same from staff. I once participated in an icebreaker where we were asked to write down everything that was going through our mind for two minutes (grocery list, things to do, etc).  We were then asked to fold up our lists and put them in our back pockets and to clear our mind of those competing thoughts until the meeting ended.  As educators, let’s promote a learning environment where we are mindful learners.

FORWARD THINKING

Do we plan meetings the same way we would have ten years ago?  Are we embracing new ways of learning?  Bryn Williams, Vice Principal of Centennial Secondary recently tweeted “What if we allowed for twitter streaming during a staff meeting to collect data…. Now that would change the conversation around phones in schools.”

Are we modeling learning as we prepare for meetings?  David Warlick, keynote speaker for the BCPVPA conference began his presentation with a quick YouTube clip on the Berlin Lights Festival.  He shared with us that this was something he had learned in the past 24 hours.  To model learning, he never prepares a presentation without learning something new in the process.

We also know that learning does not always take place within four walls. Movement and learning are connected so why do we often have all our meetings in the same room, with the same physical set up?  Let’s get moving!  Move the chairs, change up the room, or build movement into the agenda… Perhaps incorporate walking, breakout rooms, or even some outdoor learning.  At our school we have approximately 70 teachers.  We also have approximately 70 seats on our two school buses.  I wonder what we could learn together if we saw the community as our classroom.

FEEDBACK

If we hope to continually improve, then we need to collect feedback on both the content and the delivery of meetings.  Our district has recently purchased Thoughtstream as an online data collection tool.  Perhaps we can ask some great questions about our staff meetings to find out what our staff like, what they would change and what they hope to accomplish during our meetings together. 

How can we collect evidence of the learning?  Let’s use collaborative time for staff to accomplish together what they cannot do apart.  Have groups report out and make sure this information is made available to staff.  Perhaps we should end staff meetings with exit slips or other feedback tools to discover what worked, what didn’t, and what questions we may need to explore.

I’m looking forward to our next staff meeting, eager to implement some new ideas.  I’m hopeful that our staff will leave the meeting with the same positive energy I experienced after attending the BCPVPA conference.  Let’s hope they leave with some new F words on their mind…. Food, Fun, Focus, Forward Thinking & Feedback.

  I absolutely welcome your comments and ideas. Share what makes a fabulous meeting.  Let’s build a collection of great ideas!

Ten Lessons in Leadership from Reality TV

Last night I sat with my family watching The Amazing Race. As we watched the twins self destruct and face elimination, both my husband and I were amazed at how little responsibility the players took for their actions.  They chose to blame others for their failure rather than accepting the fact that their decision making had led them to last place.  This was a teachable moment for our children as we had a family discussion around owning your own behaviour.

I have always been fascinated by human behaviour and perhaps that is why I secretly (or not so secretly now) admit that I love reality TV.  The lesson from last night’s Amazing Race episode prompted me to think about others lessons I have learned from reality TV shows.  Perhaps as my own way to vindicate my less than cerebral entertainment selections, I have created my Top Ten Lessons in Leadership from Reality TV.  Enjoy!

Leadership Lesson #10 from the Amazing Race… Take Responsibility

Life is an amazing race full of adventure.  Celebrate where life takes you but take responsibility for your actions and recognize that where you are today is a reflection of your choices. Don’t blame others for where you end up.

Leadership Lesson #9 from Big Brother… Expand Your Horizons

Get out of the house.  We all act a little stir crazy when we stay in the same environment for too long.  Expand your horizons, network, connect with others beyond the walls that confine you.  (as a disclaimer I will add that I actually don’t watch this one)

Leadership Lesson #8 from World’s Deadliest Catch… Take Risks

Take calculated risks.  Don’t be afraid to try something new. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn.  However I don’t suggest you throw yourself into the middle of the ocean unless you know what you are doing!

Leadership Lesson #7 from Survivor…  Take Care of Yourself

Have a good breakfast.  Exercise. Get enough sleep.   Maslow was right.  Our needs must be met in hierarchical order.  Our basic needs must be met first before we can learn or help others learn.

Leadership Lesson #6 from The Apprentice… Relationships Matter

Build strong relationships.  If your team had the ability to fire you, would they?  Be true to your work, true to your word and care about the people around you.  Work as a team and celebrate what you accomplish together.

Leadership Lesson #5.5 (oops I had an extra one) from Secret Princes…  Embrace Good Luck

Think positive.  Sometimes something small flourishes into something beautiful and takes on a life of its own.  Dream big and believe in magic.

Leadership Lesson #5 from The Voice…  Be Curious

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Make good decisions based on evidence. Dig a little deeper to find out what people are about.

Leadership Lesson #4 from America’s Got Talent….  Recognize Strengths

Every one of us prefers to spend time at things we are good at.  Use a strength based approach to recognize the unique gift in everyone and build on these strengths. 

Leadership Lesson #3 from Extreme Makeover Home Edition… Build Community

Share stories. Reach out to one another.  Create communities that support one another. Believe in the genuine desire of others to make a positive difference.

Leadership Lesson #2 from Dancing With the Stars…. Model the Way

Share your talents.  Teach others.  Get creative and have fun!

Leadership Lesson #1 from The Bachelor… Live a Life Full of Love

This really is our greatest purpose.  Love your family, friends and your work.  Put your heart into what you do.  Accept the final rose.

Note:  Honey Boo Boo – as hard as i tried I cannot add this to the list.  the only lesson I can take from this show is that sometimes we really need to turn the TV off!