Collaboration

Meetings … Too Many? Too Few? Just Right?

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CC Photo Credit

Simply put, schools are busy places.  Busy in a good way.  There has always been a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement in the schools where I have worked.  There are team meetings, parent meetings, faculty meetings, district meetings, co-curricular, extra-curricular, and cross-curricular meetings.  Outstanding schools, like exceptional educators, are collaborative in nature.  They are places filled with people working together to foster student learning.  It is impossible to collaborate alone.  You need  to meet.  I like meetings; I always have.  Professionally, I  look forward to the opportunity to spend time with so many outstanding colleagues.

However, schools are busy places, filled with busy people.  Time is a precious commodity and a limited resource.  So meetings need to be purposeful and efficient.  It is crucial to make the most of the time you have.  My wife and a number of colleagues just returned from an Adaptive Schools training at NESA 2013. They are excited to apply the great things they learned from Bob Garmston and company.  I am excited because I find that structured collaboration, organized agendas, common agreements, and the use of protocols, to be essential elements of successful collaboration.  It’s also nice to see others sharing a common belief.  When meeting, my colleagues and I try not to waste meeting time by following through on nuts and bolts, sharing information, and managing the logistics of teaching, to a minimum. We prefer to get these tasks done by email so that our meeting times are focused on what we teach, how we teach, and how we meet the individual needs of our learners.

Is there a “right” amount of meetings?  I don’t believe there is a quantifiable response.  I see it as just the right mix of meetings that keeps a school moving forward in a culture of positivity.  Too few meetings can drain a school’s energy and enthusiasm for continual improvement  as quickly as too many meetings.  Whether it is a formal or informal meeting, I think people should leave with a sense of excitement or enthusiasm.  Finding the right mix of purposeful and efficient meetings is a great starting point.

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Put Down Your Old Tools & Pick Up New Ones

Spring time.  It is such a great time of the year.  It’s a time for tulips, pussy willows, and getting the garden ready for summer.   Excitement abounds as plans to end the school year are set and summer vacations are scheduled.  What I like most is that a feeling of rebirth, reinvention, and re-invigoration are in the air.  At home and work, it is time to do a thorough spring cleaning.  Around now, most of my favourite magazines inevitably find their way to friends, the faculty room for some gentle re-use, or my blue box for the requisite recycling.  But I also find time to enjoy parts of them one last time before sending them off to a new home.

In DWELL, I recently re-read an interesting article about William McDonough‘s work as an architect, designer, sustainability guru, and founder of Cradle to Cradle design.  Reflecting on his work, McDonough spoke of an important lesson that he learned from one of his mentors, Walker Evans.  Evans was a noted large format photographer, who at seventy, took to using a simple Polaroid camera for much of his work.  Why did he do this?  Simply, he recognized that …

“…you need to learn that every ten years, you put down your tools and pick up new ones; otherwise, you only have one life.”

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So, I have found myself thinking about Walker Evans’ words of wisdom and William McDonough’s example.  I have always enjoyed and valued the change that teaching internationally has afforded me.  Over the years, I have gained valuable experiences in a diverse range of international schools in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.  I have worked as an elementary classroom and middle school subject area teacher. I am certainly richer for the experiences that the constant change has provided.

Maybe it is because it is spring.  Maybe it is because I am approaching the end of my eighteenth year as an educator.  Or maybe it is because I feel the need to make room for something new by getting rid of the old; but I keep asking myself …

What can I do to live more than one life?

What tools will I put down next year?

What new ones will I pick up?

As a life long learner, I need to practice what I am not good at.  What do I need to practice?

As I confirm my summer plans, I am also considering what old tools will I put down and what new ones will I pick up?  What disruptive technology can I adopt next year to help me live more than one life?  I have started my list and am excited by the possibilities.  I do believe that some of the characteristics of great educators is that they continuously reflect on their work.  They seek to stretch themselves, and are comfortable being out of their element.

But I also find myself considering how can I encourage my colleagues to live more than one life?  As a learning leader, principal, or headmaster, what are you doing to help your colleagues put down their old tools and pick up some new ones?  Are you embarking on a 1:1 iPad pilot program?  Implementing a new standardized assessment like the ISA?  Beginning to explore different forms of running records? Reconsidering the idea of literacy in today’s ever changing world?  Offering alternative sources of professional development like a COETAIL course, instructional coaches, or the use of agendas and protocols to enhance collaboration?  What part does identifying disruptive technologies play in your end of year reviews or goals meetings?

What are the old tools that you might put down?  What new ones might you pick up?

“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

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Sydney Crosby, Rory McIlroy, Rafeal Nadal, Lindsey Vonn, Dr. Atul Gawande, Itzhak Perlman, and Usain Bolt share a number of commonalities. Each has reached the upper echelon of their chosen profession — be it sports, music, or medicine.  Yet, despite being at the pinnacle of their individual professions, recognized as true models of excellence, they each also have a coach.

As an educator, my professional practice has been shifting away from the traditional paradigm of a teacher, to become more of an instructional coach for the students who bound into school each day.  As an educator, much of my day is spent offering and developing specific, targeted, and deliberate practice / feedback so that students can develop the depth and breadth of abilities they will require for future success.  Simply, learners improve by working on what they are not good at.

I would like to see more of an instructional coaching model help improve my professional practice, shape the growth and development of my profession, and ultimately strengthen student learning.  Teaching and learning is simply too complex to be able to be successful in isolation.  Without another set of eyes, offering a different perspective, people are unable to achieve and maintain their personal best.  The idea that once you graduate, from something like middle school, high school, university, driver’s ed, or cooking school, that you no longer require instruction, is simply outdated.

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As an educator, I know that I will always have something to work on.  As a professional, I recognize that each of my colleagues will always have something to work on.  As an educational leader, I will always value the role coaching contributes to the journey of continuous improvement.  As the husband of a learning coach, I see the importance of letting teacher’s, like students, take ownership for learning and choose their individualized path; be it keeping a mini-lesson truly mini, developing improved questioning, making better use of assessment data, organizing better collaborative meetings, or adopting new classroom management strategies.  The list is and should be, truly endless.

I see coaching being an essential role of every school administrator.  The most effective learning leaders are those who observe, judge, and help facilitate professional learning.  They enable their colleagues to become more competent; to move through the four stages of competence.

It’s certainly true that some background knowledge and expertise is important to be an effective coach, but the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches.  The great violinist, Itzhak Perlman is a case in point.  His wife is his coach.  Coaches don’t need to know it all.

“She is an extra ear.” She’d tell him if a passage was too fast or too tight or too mechanical—if there was something that needed fixing. Sometimes she has had to puzzle out what might be wrong, asking another expert to describe what she heard as he played”.

Gehry Excellence

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It is in this context that I find myself wondering, how do principals and headmasters stay at their best?  I think looking to the world of sports, medicine and the model that already exists in education, offers great opportunity. Instructional coaches are becoming increasingly common in our schools.  Perhaps it is time that formal educational leaders tap into the potential that coaching offers to further support their work.

To close, I wanted to leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s one of the values that my family emphasized while I was growing up and is one that I hope to impart in my three sons, and the kids who I work with every day.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

I’ve never really known who originated the quote, but according to a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s attributed to one of the great Greek philosophers.  Thanks to coaches like Maggie Moon, Pam Harper, Justin Medved, and Tom Baker, I know that coaching helps ensure that the work you do is your personal best, helps a school strive towards excellence,  and helps improve student learning.

Looking For Learning

Getting back into some sort of blogging routine feels a lot like getting back to the gym.  I have great aspirations, but do not seem to always find time to fit everything in.  It’s hard.  So last week, I set a small personal goal for myself … try and build a blogging routine by posting something this week.

Following up on my previous post, I continue to find myself thinking about learning — its big idea, what it means to me, and my colleagues? What does it look like in our community?  I am a firm proponent that schools should always be learning focused collaborative endeavors.  As an educator, my professional practice continues to be a work in progress, constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. Now I am much more of a “coach” or “critical friend” to the kids I work with than ever before.  Quick, timely, formative feedback is incredibly powerful either on the ice at a hockey practice or in a reading workshop.  I would not want it any other way.

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As an educator, I am looking for a similar critical friend or learning coach to help improve my professional practice.  It is something I look for in my colleagues and formal administrators.  Fieldwork Education’s   Looking for Learning protocol is the closest experience I’ve had to receiving consistent, timely formative feedback.

Looking for Learning, is an effective process for working collaboratively with colleagues (teachers, instructional coaches, parents, principals, etc.) to see what learning is happening in classrooms.  The focus is on student learning.  So talking to kids about their learning is at the center of each visit.  Should a teacher be in the midst of a mini-lesson, classroom visitors can simply move on to another room, and drop by later when whole group instruction is no longer in progress.

Ten to 20 minutes is the typical length of a teacher or administrator’s classroom visit.  In the busy day to day routines, finding ten or 20 minutes here and there to visit a colleagues classroom is easily manageable.   However, it is absolutely fabulous when I manage to set aside an hour to visit and talk with students about their learning in a wide range of classrooms, grade levels, and content areas.

When visiting a classroom and talking to kids, four essential understandings helped shape conversations:

Is this a learning classroom? This simple line of questioning is incredibly powerful.  It is non-threatening and one that every educator, parent, and student would expect to hear a resounding, YES!  When a learning community has an established, shared common definition of learning, the power if this question is amplified.

Is the learning appropriate and sufficient?   As an elementary literacy teacher, this idea always makes me think of students’ “Just Right Books”.  Ideally, learning for the kids should not be too difficult, nor too easy.  It should be just enough of a stretch that they can independently achieve a level of success.  When speaking to kids, I tried to speak with them in order to find out if they were learning something new, consolidating their learning, simply treading water, or drowning.

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What is helping or hindering the learning? This is perhaps my favorite line of questioning.  I always found it to be amazing to hear students reflect on who they are as a learner, identify what they see as a need to further support their learning, and articulate exactly what is helping them on their journey.

Here’s a list of possible questions to help guide your conversations with kids.

The final piece of the puzzle is getting together with a colleague to share and discuss your visit.  This always created the biggest challenge for me, but I soon found that a short conversation over coffee at recess worked best.  It is easy to participate in a reflective conversation with your colleagues because Looking for Learning is not evaluative.  As the visitor, your role is to simply share out the evidence you collected during your visit, not your impression, your opinion, or suggestions for next steps.  When visiting classrooms, I tried to take detailed notes because I always found receiving specific quotes from the kids seemed to encourage reflection because they helped me recognize if my perception matched those of my students.

I am a BIG fan of Looking for Learning. Not only do I see its great potential to support student learning, but what I like most is that after speaking with students and my colleagues, I find myself energized and enriched by the experience. Thank you Pam Harper and Fieldwork Education.