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.