My Top Ten Mistakes and the Lessons I Have Learned

A man may fall many times, but he won’t be a failure

until he says that someone pushed him. ~ Elmer G. Letterman

Recently I sat down to prepare for a job interview for a Vice Principal position with the Maple Ridge School District. To do so, I created a chart, with a range of topics that I thought may come up during the interview. Under each column I reflected on my career in education, with examples that I could use to demonstrate my skill set. I anticipated there may be a question about mistakes I have made, or things I would do differently if I had the chance to go back and start over, so I created a column just for my mistakes. As I brainstormed scenarios, I found that the ‘mistakes’ column brought back some great memories, and I found that I was laughing out loud, thinking back to some of my career bloopers.   

What I started to recognize is that the moments that emerged as mistakes also helped me grow as a leader. Each mistake challenged my thinking, required some creativity, and taught me a valuable lesson.  Looking back, these are some of the most enjoyable memories, as these are days I will never forget!

Pam Becker, Vice Principal at Pitt River Middle School recently wrote about mistakes, and the importance they play in our adult lives. As educators, we often remind students and their parents that mistakes make us human, and help us learn and grow. As adults, we don’t always grant ourselves the same permission, and often choose to play it safe. Choosing the safe route may yield fewer mistakes, but it also dampens our creative spirit.  JK Rowling offered an outstanding commencement speech on The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination. She describes rock bottom as the solid foundation for re-building life. 

Fortunately, I would not describe any of my bloopers as ‘hitting rock bottom’, though I do feel there are lessons to be learned from each experience.  I share with you what I consider My Top Ten Mistakes and the Lessons I have Learned.

Mistake # 10 – BEST 40th Photobest40

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of our school, we decided to take an aerial photo of our students on our field spelling out BEST 40.  We had a vision, and thought it was possible.  I contacted the News 1130 traffic helicopter and they agreed to take the photo.  Unfortunately the time they were in the air didn’t correlate with school hours so we went to Plan B.  I contacted the fire department and asked if they could use their Tower Truck to take the photo.  They agreed, assuming no emergency calls came in.  With vision and optimism, we thought we were ready.  I went to Costco and bought a gazillion roles of hockey tape to line the field before an assembly where we gave instructions on how to line up.   Sounds good right?  Well the logistics had some flaws.  Teachers called me over to tell me they had calculated the angle and that the photo would not work.  The hockey tape didn’t stick to turf, and to make matters worse the colour of the tape almost matched the field colour. Almost everyone suggested we just take one big group photo.  However, my principal and I had faith.  With completely inappropriate footwear for the weather conditions, we gathered five students to help us and we spontaneously used all the masking tape in the school to outline BEST 40. With minutes to spare, we led the assembly and our plan worked. The Tower Truck arrived, no emergency calls came in and we got our photo.  LESSON: Plan ahead but always believe in hope.

Mistake # 9 – Post It Note Chaos

Last June, I was approached by two of my leadership students.  They wanted to play a ‘grad prank’ that was safe and in good taste.  They had a vision of using thousands of coloured post it notes to line the lockers of the school spelling ‘GRAD 2012’.  They wanted to do this on a Sunday evening so the staff and students could arrive on Monday morning to find a colourful and tasteful surprise.  I agreed to meet them on Sunday night, so a group of 10-20 students could create their ‘art work’.  They brought in music, snacks and thousands of post its.  They got to work and I used the time to catch up on work in my office.  Life was going well until I heard banging from the floor above me.  I quickly discovered that the post it note prank had progressed into an out of control party of sorts. Students had let other students in, and not all of them had the same intention.  The pranks were no longer in good taste, and many other minor pranks were being arranged on each of the three floors.  I could not believe that I had essentially contributed to an event that had a negative impact on our school. I felt so much shame. Thankfully one of my friends on staff agreed to help me in the late hours cleaning as much as we could before Monday morning arrived.  Lesson: Kids will be Kids. Give them the wings to fly but not free reign of the school to plan a grad prank. 

Mistake #8 – Emergency Folder Updates

Every room in our school has an emergency folder with information, maps and paperwork necessary to help in an evacuation or emergency.  One particular day I decided to box up all the folders with all the updated inserts, and bring the box home.  The process of updating the folders took longer than I thought and I was tired.  My husband looked at me and said “what are the chances that you will need those tomorrow?”.  I agreed the chance was extremely low and decided to get some sleep, leaving the folders spread across my living room to be completed the following evening.  Of course, the very next day the fire alarms started to ring mid day and our school had to evacuate without signs, class lists, paperwork, etc.   Lesson:  Murphy’s Law Exists!  Be warned!

Mistake # 7 – The Big Drug Bust

Our school is right across the street from a big park full of trails.  It’s a beautiful setting, but also an easy place to hide.  I was well aware that one of our students was bringing drugs to school and selling them to others in the park.  However, I was one step behind him and never caught him in the act.  On a busy day, I saw him cross the road with friends and a big bag.  I checked to see if one of our other administrators could go for a walk in the park with me to see what we could discover.  They were tied up in meetings, but I didn’t want to let this moment pass by as I didn’t want our students smoking drugs in the park. I decided to linger behind the student group and enter the park alone.  In the distance I saw the person with the backpack head off the trail and head into the woods.  I decided I would out-smart him.  Instead of allowing him to see me coming down the same path, I decided to venture into the woods through a different direction so that we would meet up at the same spot.  I climbed over stumps, navigated tree roots and eventually came to the same clearing as the student with the back pack.  I said hello.  He turned around so we were face to face.  There I was staring at a man in his mid 40’s in the middle of the woods.  Hmmm.  Not so safe.  I quickly excused myself and exited quickly.   Lesson:  Safety First.  Plain and Simple. 

Mistake # 6 – Caesar Salad for All 

In preparation for parent night, and a staff dinner at the break, my principal asked me to pick up romaine lettuce at Costco.  I asked how much I should pick up.  She said four.  So off I went to Costco in search of lettuce.  I was delighted to find that Costco has already bundled the lettuce 4 / pack, so I picked up one pack and headed for the till.  Ten minutes before the dinner my principal asked me where the rest of the lettuce was.  I asked her what she was talking about.  Apparently she had meant four packages.  Who knew you couldn’t make salad for 80 people with only 4 heads of lettuce!  Now, most of you will probably think that I should learn something from this, but really, the lesson here is that we need to recognize the strengths in one another.  Funny how Mary never asked me to cook again.  Lesson: Know your strengths.  Cooking is not mine.

Mistake # 5 – Awards Night during Teacher Job Action 

Last June we had difficulty determining whether or not we should host our Awards Evening as the teachers were in Job Action and unable to volunteer their time to assist.  We decided that we would go ahead with a streamlined version.  Rather than having award recipients approach the stage one by one, we would call them up in groups based on the awards won.  Mark Rao MC’d the event, Mary O’Neill shook hands with the students and I distributed the awards and certificates from the table.  Minutes in I realized I was way over my head.  Students were approaching every second, and matching them with their awards in time for the photo was becoming an impossible task.  Deciding the show must go on, I continued to hand out awards and tell the students to smile. Only problem? The certificates did not match their names.  Each time I whispered to the student to see me at the end to swap the certificates.  At the end of the evening I remember Mark and Mary being pleased, and saying ” Wow – that sure ran smoothly!”.  I then explained that our blonde haired top Calculus student actually posed with the Korean student’s Drafting award with the wrong name, etc.  Good thing the camera didn’t have a zoom lens and no one noticed!  Lesson: The Show Must Go On! Smile for the camera, let the students shine and work out the kinks later.  Oh, and pray that Job Action will not return.

Mistake # 4 – Winter Formal Tickets

For years, our school has held a winter formal dance as a fundraiser for school clubs. Tickets have always been a hot item as the venue only holds 250 students.  In years past, students camped overnight to get tickets and then slept through or skipped class.  This didn’t seem educationally sound so we decided that we would sell tickets after school as a secret location within the building.  We decided not to announce the location until after our last class so that all students could attend school, and then have an equal chance of getting into line.  We asked one of our teachers to be near the secret location (at the end of a hallway) to help maintain an orderly line once the location was announced.  We picked our PE hallway as we have cameras in this location and we would be able to replay the video footage if students tried to sneak into line ahead of others.  Again, sounds like a good idea right?  OK – now imagine hundreds of students running full speed down the same hallway with one staff member trying to hold them back.  The video footage is priceless.  Imagine a mosh pit where the teacher, Dave Jones,  is all of a sudden crowd surfing with his hands flailing in the air as he is moved down the hall.  Sorry Dave! Thank goodness we moved to an internet based system this year.  Lesson: Embrace Technology and Avoid the Old Fashioned Line Up Craze!

Mistake # 3 – Fieldtrip Disaster

When I was teaching Marketing at Terry Fox Secondary, I arranged a fieldtrip to Seattle each semester.  We rented a coach bus to travel in comfort.  I did all the necessary paperwork so the office had all the student information.  Students had their ID, and we were ready to go.  However, on the way back home, our bus broke down on the side of the I-5 Highway near Mount Vernon.  The driver concluded the bus would not re-start and we started to unload.  This caused some traffic congestion in the area. Most of our students had moved to the grassy area beside the highway and the final six and the driver were in the midst of exiting the bus.  At that moment, a semi trailer failed to see the traffic stopping ahead, swerved to miss the traffic and instead clipped the front end of our bus.  The bus started to tip towards the kids and the truck flipped over the guard rail in front of us.bus accident  As you can tell by the photo, it is a miracle no one was seriously hurt in this accident.  However, when I phoned the school to inform parents and administration I realized the school was now closed and I didn’t have the contact numbers for our administrators.  Lesson: When planning fieldtrips, leave the necessary paperwork with the school, but travel with the necessary contact information to reach school staff and parents.

Mistake # 2 Hot Air Balloon

While working at Dr. Charles Best, I tried to come up with a creative idea each year to help raise thousands of dollars for the Terry Fox Foundation.  These included a ‘Kiss A Goat’ event, ‘Blue Devils on the Run Garden Gnomes’ and a ‘Hot Air Balloon Event’.  I approached Remax and asked them to donate their hot air balloon for our fundraiser.  They agreed.  We sold plastic balls for $10 each, and set a target.  The balloon operator then dropped thousands of balls from the sky, and the student with the ball closest to the pin won a $1000 cash prize.  The remaining funds went to the Terry Fox Foundation.  Again, sounds good right?  Over the past five years we have raised closed to $50 000 for the Terry Fox Foundation so I would consider this a success on many grounds.  However, when our event ended up on the front cover of the paper, a concerned citizen lodged a formal complaint with the BC Lottery Corporation.  In their eyes, we were teaching children, under the age of 19 to gamble, without a lottery license.  My apologies to the entire district who had to endure re-training on when and how to get a lottery licence.  Lesson: Be creative, have fun, help charities, but get a lottery license first!

Mistake #1:  Sandra & Samantha’s Reunion Twistsandra sam In 2009, we began Project HELLO, helping the homeless from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver re-connect with family through Christmas Cards.  Sandra, pictured on the left, was the first woman to write a card.  When we found her daughter Samantha in Alberta they were both overjoyed.  Samantha had presumed her mother was dead, and was so excited to find out she was alive in Vancouver.  Neither had the funds to reunite, so our students and staff chipped in and paid for an all-expense paid trip for Samantha to come to Vancouver, including flights, accommodation and food.  After re-connecting them at the airport, we traveled in my car to the hotel.  Mid-route Samantha proceeded to tell the students and I that she would not be accepting the return flight, as she had decided to stay in Vancouver with her mom.  She shared a story about just getting out of jail in time for the flight as she had recently taken a Calgary city bus on a joy-ride.  Her children were no longer in her care.   Shocked and confused my mind was racing.  Minutes after dropping them off at the hotel, I was in contact with the Calgary police to discuss the situation. Samantha did decide to stay for a couple months and live with her mother on the streets of Vancouver.  This wasn’t exactly what we had pictured, yet when I look back, I recognize that it was still a beautiful act.  At the core, a mother and daughter were able to re-connect and share family stories, after a decade of not hearing from each other.  They may live lives that are very different from ours, but they love one another and deserved the opportunity to connect as a family. Lesson: Find the positive in each situation. Families come in many shapes and sizes, and helping them connect will never be wrong.

Above all, the most valuable lesson I have learned is that we have to take risks, seek new challenges and be comfortable making mistakes in order to grow and learn.  Oh – and in case you are wondering, I got the job!  Thomas Haney, I look forward to learning from my mistakes with you!

When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” 

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”.

The Best of Best: Reflecting on School Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change Your Perception… Change Everything

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

young-woman-old-woman-illusion

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

 cellphones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Teens, Teachers and Social Media: Same Tools, Different Purpose

This school year I decided to develop my personal growth plan around technological literacy.  I did so for a number of reasons:  First, I was hearing from our students that they were using Facebook less than in the past, but their use of Twitter was on the rise.  I had no idea how to use Twitter at the time, and I was not comfortable knowing that our students were communicating in ways I did not understand.  For years I have used Facebook as a way to communicate with students, post information about school events, and stay up to date with issues impacting our students. If our students were switching to Twitter, I wanted to learn so I could stay connected.  Second, I wanted to explore how the use of blogging and social media could improve learning, professional development, communication and reflection.  I wasn’t sure what to expect….

Eight weeks later….

To be honest, it feels funny to type ‘eight weeks later’ because I can’t believe that two months ago, I did not embrace social media and blogging the way I do now.  It reminds me of the Buddhist Proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Both Twitter and blogging have re-shaped the way I learn and reflect.  Twitter is one of the best mediums of professional development I have ever experienced.  It allows me the opportunity to share ideas, engage in professional dialogue and learn from students and educators around the world.  And the best part? It takes place anytime, anywhere, and it’s free.  Similarly, I absolutely love taking time each week to blog.  Some people have asked if it feels like one more obligation competing for my time.  The answer is a definite no. In fact, it has the opposite effect.  The commitment to blog is a commitment I have made for myself reminding me to take time to slow down and reflect, and to focus on what I am learning, rather than getting consumed by the never ending to do list.

The second lesson I have learned since the start of the school year, is that I do not use social media the same way our students do.  I adopted Twitter to understand student behaviour, but instead I ended up on a professional development journey.  Knowing that our students were not all using Twitter to read articles and share ideas around the world, I decided to host two events with students to better understand how they use social media.  First I hosted a focus group with a small group of students from grades 9-12.  Second, I invited some students I didn’t know well to come in for a working lunch…. we provided lunch and they taught our admin team and youth worker how teens at our school are using Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media sites. 

It is important to note that the observations I have made do not necessarily represent how all students use social media.  Nonetheless, the students I spoke with offered some interesting insight.

Facebook:  Facebook is used by most, to post pictures, comment on friends’ status updates and stay connected with friends.  Most of their parents also use Facebook or feel that they understand Facebook.  However,  many students shared that it is quite common for teens alter the privacy settings so their parents only see parts of their Facebook page.  Similarly, some students admit to having two Facebook profiles…. one their parents know about, and one they don’t.   Most of our students felt that Facebook enhanced their learning in many ways…. they use Facebook to form study groups, to upload homework files, and to stay connected with meeting times and practice schedules for extra-curricular commitments.  Almost all students also have Facebook on their phone so they receive alerts as new messages arrive in their Facebook inbox.  Most students noted that they are always on facebook while doing their homework, allowing them to collaborate, ask questions, or just chat.   At our school we post many of our school announcements on Facebook.  We now have over 800 of our 1300 students connected to our school Facebook page.  When we need students to sign up for something we post it on Facebook and we have responses in seconds.  The speed is almost instantaneous, and much more effective than using PA announcements that often get missed.

Twitter:  Many students told me that they use twitter to ‘vent’ or to express emotion.  They create hashtags that match their emotion and have conversations about how they feel about something or someone.  Most felt that their parents do not know how to monitor their use of Twitter.   Many explain that their general conversations with friends have switched from Facebook to Twitter.  Twitter appears to be the platform with the greatest opportunity for learning.  A teacher can use Twitter to have students tweet answers while in the classroom or from home, and students can connect with other classes around the world engaging in conversation, learning with one another.

Tumblr:  I have to admit, I still don’t really get this one.  Many students use it to upload photos, and comment on each other’s pictures.  They also use it as a blogging tool.  Tumblr seems to be more popular with our younger grades than our senior students.  What many like about Tumblr is the ability to post and receive anonymous comments.  As a past school counsellor, this is what I really don’t like about Tumblr.  The anonymous feature allows people to say things they would not say with their name attached.  Students mentioned that Tumblr is useful for school projects on teen issues such as eating disorders, depression, etc.  Searching on topics such as these leads to teen pages with blogs and photos, giving the student an understanding of how other teens are thinking. Many also shared that this is a platform where they post positive messages to support one another.

Texting: Our students shed some light on how texting impacts student to student relationships.  From my ‘old person’ perspective, it seems like texting has replaced old school flirting.  Unfortunately, it seems like younger girls sometimes feel obligated to engage in very private conversations or photo sharing because they believe a genuine connection exists. When relationships don’t develop further, or teens break up, some girls mentioned feeling regret around the information they have shared through their phones. Again, this seemed to be more of a concern to our younger students in grades 9 and 10.   This conversation gave us insight to the importance of education around healthy relationships, and the importance of conversations with both our male and female students about appropriate use of technology.  With the average teenager sending and receiving over 3000 texts per month, we need to provide education on how to embrace digital communication in a responsible way, fostering the same sense of citizenship that we expect in face to face interactions. 

I am thankful to our students for taking time to engage in conversation and allow me to understand social media through a different lens. Our students are growing up with technology and they have much to teach us when we give them the opportunity to do so. As I continue on my own personal journey with social media, I am mindful that our students may use the same tools, but in different ways.  And no matter how much I learn with social media, I am again reminded that the best way to connect with our kids will always be face to face conversations.

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!

What’s Right With Our Schools

I have a great job that I love. As a vice principal in a school with over 1300 students and 100 staff, each day is a unique and rich experience. To be honest, I never know exactly what to expect. On paper, my job is a blend of educational leadership and management tasks. In reality, it is much more.  Each day I get to be a teacher, a learner, a counsellor, a volunteer, a mentor, a mentee, an event planner, a facilitator, and a member of an exciting and thriving community. I get to see amazing teachers guide students through well-crafted lessons and I get to see students reach new milestones and accomplish learning goals. I get to walk through hallways that are bustling with vibrant culture celebrating arts, athletics, citizenship, and academics. I see students develop character, take responsibility and make positive contributions both in an out of school. I fall asleep at night knowing my own children are in great hands, and I understand why BC’s education system continually ranks as one of the very best in the world.  I am grateful for the vantage point I have though I don’t think we take enough time to tell others what is right with our schools. 

Think back to the last time you experienced poor customer service. How many people did you tell?  If you are like most, it is likely that you shared this poor experience with others, either because of your outrage or because you wanted to save your friends and family from going through what you went through.  As a society, we pay attention to negative experiences as they conflict with our value system and therefore arouse emotion.  When we turn on the evening news, or pick up  the morning paper, it is easy to feel depressed and wonder what the world is coming to as bad news stories seem to dominate the airtime and the front page. Unfortunately, bad news sells. To find the good news stories, we need wait until later in the news broadcast, or we need to flip the pages in the newspaper to discover what’s inside.

I am grateful that I get to flip those pages, and see what’s actually inside our BC public schools.  Through the eyes of the media, our schools are struggling.  Top stories include labour disputes, financial cuts, schools closures, lack of services or social issues such as bullying.  In no way do I mean to undermine these issues, as I am passionate about education and want what is best for our students and our staff.  These concerns need to be addressed though they need not shadow what is right with our schools.  Our  public schools have amazing strengths and successes that deserve just as much, if not more attention.

We have fabulous teachers.  I am inspired each day by the creativity, commitment and genuine love our teachers bring to their job.  Teachers volunteer time before and after school, take work home in the evening, continue to learn and grow as professionals and develop amazing lessons where our students get to learn and discover.  Our teachers do so much more than teach curriculum.  They embrace ‘teachable moments’ that cannot be planned, where circumstances of the day yield valuable lessons.   They care deeply for students and open up their hearts, their wallets and their time to create opportunities to enhance students’ experiences. They organize fieldtrips, create hampers for families in need, run extracurricular sports and clubs, offer tutorials, and serve as positive role models to our children.  They are compassionate, positive, and believe in the potential of each and every child.  I’m sure every one of us can think of a teacher who made a lasting positive impression in our life.

 As we move towards a personalized learning approach, parents and students have a variety of choices in education ranging from home schooling, online learning, private school, public school or a variety of blended models.  All models have their strengths, though it is important to recognize that public schools continue to yield amazing results.  Graduation rates continue to rise, and our students rank close to the top on both national and world wide scales.  At the school I work at, over half of our graduates in 2012 graduated with honours. Eighty six students earned provincial scholarships.  In the past two years our grads have won some of the most prestigious scholarships in the country such as the ‘Top 20 under 20’, ‘Loran Scholarship’ and ‘Terry Fox Humanitarian Award’.  Our school is not alone.  Each school has strengths worth recognizing.  Public schools have amazing kids capable of amazing things. 

About five years ago when I was counseling, I had a parent arrive to register her son.  Her family had moved to BC from another country and she had concerns about our school system. She then stated that “the problem with public schools is that we let everyone in”.  You can imagine my dismay.  As a parent and as an educator, I see this as one of our strengths.  Each unique student has a different gift.   Students go to school to learn curriculum but also to learn how to relate with others.  They develop character as they learn to appreciate each other, help one another and work collaboratively. Public school give students an opportunity to fit in with ‘the real world’.   As I watch our students graduate I am inspired and proud of who they have become.  They are socially responsible, creative, innovative, compassionate and ready to make a difference.  I am confident our future will be full of outstanding leaders and citizens. 

It seems that it is a natural phenomenon for each generation to worry about their successors.  Criticism of kids these days is nothing new.  In 400 BC, Socrates said “Children today are tyrants.  They contradict their successors, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”  I hate to undermine Socrates, but perhaps it’s time we stop stereotyping children through a negative lens.

Next time bad news captures the front page of the paper, I encourage you flip through the pages and dig a little deeper to see what our kids are really about. The further you dig, the more inspired you will be.  Public school is a great place to learn and a great place to work. Let’s start talking about what’s right with our schools.

A is for Apple…

Last spring I took the morning off work to take my seven year old son to the doctor.  On the way back from his appointment it crossed my mind that he may be hungry.  Knowing I had an apple in my work bag, I turned slightly from my driver’s seat and asked Jaden if he would like an apple.  His face lit up like Christmas morning and with excitement he exclaimed “Yes! I want a new IPod-touch!”   You can imagine his disappointment as I explained that I was only offering him a piece of fruit.  Moments like these are humourous, yet they also bring to light the way technology is changing the way our children grow up and the way they experience the world. 

When I compare my childhood to my children’s childhood I can see that we are living similar experiences though technology is changing how these experiences happen.  Many of us grew up watching cartoons on Saturday morning.  Today, my children set the PVR and watch their favourite cartoons when it is convenient in their schedule.  My brother and I used to collect pop cans as kids and we would save our money for a trip to the store for a new toy.  My boys also love to spend their money on something new but more often than not, they choose eBay over the toy store.  They have discovered that Pokemon toys are much cheaper if they order them from Hong Kong so they often spend their allowance on PayPal purchases and wait three weeks for their favourite toys to arrive in the mail.  They use their IPod to record music, take photos and play video games.  They use the computer to write stories, create and share artwork, and print colouring sheets.  Their computer skills are phenomenal, and unlike when I grew up, they are learning the keyboard at the same time they are learning to write on paper. These experiences shape how they learn, despite the fact that the concepts and knowledge they are acquiring are for the most part the same. 

For children, their ability to use technology seems natural as each experience is new for them and they do not have a pre-defined method of completing their tasks.  For adults, we need to re-think how we do things which sometimes requires a greater adjustment.  My mother has recently learned to text, to program her PVR and to read on a Kindle; although we have a ways to go before she will be able to understand some of the other capabilities of her smart phone such as photography or recording music.  When I think back to the past year, I am amazed at how many changes I have made as an adult adjusting to new technology.  I use my I-Pad rather than paper to take notes in meetings, I create to do lists on my phone, I use Twitter to share articles about education and I have replaced the traditional photo albums with online photo books.  I use the Starbucks app to scan my morning purchase, use the EEBA app to budget our family finances and I track my fitness goals and weight through health related apps.  When I told one of my colleagues I was using the phone to record my weight every day she looked at me in disbelief and said “you do that on your work phone?”  When I affirmed this, thinking that the worst that could happen would be that someone would discover my weight she replied with “you stand on your phone?”  Just as my son’s comment had drawn attention to the changes technology is making on childhood, this comment drew attention to the shift we experience as adults re-teaching our brains how to complete functions in a different way.

As an educator, technology has changed the way we communicate with parents and students.  Every adult in our building uses email and many have created their own websites to share lessons and homework expectations.  Our library has grown exponentially as our librarian has embraced the digital world and resources available.  We use Facebook daily to send school messages to students, as the response time is almost immediate and yields faster results than the old fashion daily announcements read over the PA or posted on paper.  Social media provides insight into the social relationships that impact our students and the emotional wellbeing of our kids.  Our counsellors and youth workers are often made aware of issues kids are struggling with through their Facebook status updates or their tweets.

As our world changes rapidly, we as educators need to stop and ask ourselves “What role does technology play in school?”  At our recent professional development day, I was surprised by the range of answers this question provoked amongst our staff.  Some feel that schools would be better without technology while others are on the cutting edge of technology and wanting to purchase the newest and fastest devices.   Some focused on the limitations we face with school budgets and bandwidth issues.

Personally I feel that we owe it to our students to understand how they are learning.  As educators, we need to model learning, and we need to have a vested interest in understanding the students we work with.  Perhaps we will not shift how we do our weekly tasks, but an awareness and understanding will only enhance the options we have when we develop lessons or plan activities for our students.  Who knows? Perhaps what we learn will leave a lasting impact and teach an old dog a new trick.  Technology has certainly allowed us the opportunity to see ourselves as learners as our students are often able to teach us the latest technological skills.

Our world is changing rapidly and entrepreneurs in our society are busy finding ways that technology can improve our lives.  Whether or not these changes ‘improve our lives’ may be a personal opinion though I believe there are some fundamental principles we must address as educators. 

First, we need to teach our students how to filter the information they are bombarded with.  Knowledge is no longer a scarce commodity shared amongst the educated.  Instead, knowledge is available, free of charge, almost instantaneously through Google or the Khan Academy. Even Harvard University offers lectures free of charge to the online audience.  As educators we need to continue to teach content, but we must put even more emphasis on how our students sift through content, ask questions and think critically about the information they are gathering.  These skills have always been important but as access to information grows exponentially, so must our ability to process information effectively.  Our students’ information literacy and ability to learn will become more important than what they learn.  As teachers we need to keep up with our students, continue to learn, and see ourselves as facilitators guiding the learning process rather than subject experts teaching kids.

Second, I feel it is important to speak the language our students speak.  If they are using Facebook to communicate, we need to at least understand this process so we can take care of our kids.  We need to educate them about the dangers of social media, and teach them how to use social media as a positive way to connect and network with others.

Third, in a time when education budgets are tight, we need to be creative and understand that the students may have the solution.  A teacher on our staff recently shared that he gives the same assignment, and discussed the learning outcomes that the students need to achieve but he allows the students to choose the medium of their project.  If they want to integrate technology into their project or present through an online medium they are welcome to do so.  We also need to be aware that our students already own many of the latest gadgets, long before the schools have the ability to purchase them.  Many if not most of our high school students have smart phones with them in class.  Teachers teaching in a regular classroom can group students in teams and have each group access the internet through their phones to find answers to questions or ideas to explore.  Sometimes these changes to education don’t cost a thing.  Vancouver School Board recently embraced this idea and launched their BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) campaign to encourage students to bring their phones and laptops to school. Encouraging students to bring their own device seems easier to implement than trying to police technology and asking everyone to keep their phones off.  In fact, asking for technology to stay out of schools may be near impossible.  Last year our school experienced an emergency situation where we needed to put the school on lockdown as a preventive measure as there was an intruder in the area.  When I announced the lockdown over the PA system, I asked teachers to turn on their email for further detail.  It took me three minutes to correspond with police and send out the first email.  However, a local radio station broadcasted that we were on lockdown just 90 seconds after my PA announcement.  Students had used their phones to contact parents the second the announcement was made.  We discovered that our ability to send out accurate information and update people as much as possible kept everyone calm and safe.  Trying to refrain from using technology during emergency situations may only lead to chaos, especially for people on the outside who are worried about the students.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we as parents and educators need to help our children understand when to turn technology off.  Family dinners will be more meaningful when families have face to face conversations rather than texting friends during the meal.  Allowing face to face friendships to develop serves us well as children and adults. Facebook has re-defined the definition of a ‘friend’ and it is important that we let face to face authentic friendships develop.  We can help our children get a good night sleep by allowing them downtime without technology before they go to bed.  We also know that students who do not have computers in their room are less likely to stay up all night checking their Facebook and Twitter.

Personally I know that I am often able to find the answer I am looking for when I turn the gadgets off.  Having time to self-reflect allows our character to develop and allows us the opportunity to discover our inner voice.  Technology is here to stay, and it is shifting the way we learn.  Our challenge is no longer what to learn, but rather how to learn, and deciding when we should welcome technology and when we should turn it off.  Although I embrace the impact technology has had on my family, I am still hesitant to book a camping trip at a campsite offering free wireless service.  Sometimes it’s nice just to get away with friends and family, power down, pack up the cooler, and enjoy an ‘old fashioned’ type of apple.