Monday, December 21, 2015

We Are Who We Love; in memory of a great man

Several days ago, a great and wonderful man passed away.  

He was my Uncle.  This is my tribute to him.  

I confess that I struggled to find the words to articulate what I was feeling.  To try and sum up someone who was as incredible as he was, was difficult.  No words could really capture the essence of someone who had the qualities he had.  I could only but try.  Suffice to say that there is a special place in my heart reserved just for him, and a fair chunk of my own moral code and character that has been shaped from his influence.  When reflecting about him with my cousin, we both agreed that if we were to pass away having only an 8th of his qualities, then we would know that we had made a difference in this world.  

Dear Bruce - this is for you.  XOX 

It is with a heavy, but fond heart that I pay tribute to my uncle, Bruce Miller, a true gentleman, whose compassion and community spirit was second to none.   I considered Bruce to be an amazing human being; one I was privileged to call my Uncle.

 Recently I read an article that outlined the ten most desirable traits in human beings, and my Uncle Bruce epitomized each of these traits.  He had integrity, courage, a sense of humour, and he was intelligent with a healthy dose of common sense.  Bruce had empathy for others, he was kind, conducted his business with self-confidence and discipline, he was generous to a fault and finally, Bruce was self-aware – he was a very astute person.  He taught me to believe in humanity, and to take the time to enjoy the small moments in life, because the most important things to value are not those we can purchase.

Bruce was honest, fair and he acted with decency.   When Bruce promised to do something, he did it.  Even when that promise meant trying to fix a boat so his niece could go boating on the pond.  Bruce knew that boat was never going to be an easy repair, and it was unlikely to last long, but he had promised and he delivered.  Yes the boat sank – with me in it.  But I will never forget the lessons of patience; following through on your word, and the value of being able to swim, that were learnt that day.
He had a quiet and calm way of being.   Bruce was a man you could share a conversation with, and one you could feel as equally at ease with, by sitting in silence.   Either way, there was always something that could be learnt from those times.  One just had to listen.
 Bruce had knack for facing challenges with gentleness and a wry smile.  An example of a time where having a good sense of humour saved the day was not long after the new house was built.   It wasn’t ideal to use dishwashing liquid in the new spa, especially when if filled the bathroom with a sea of bubbles to the ceiling, but he saw the funny side, and helped pitch in to clean up the overflow of bubbles!  The lesson here is that mistakes are what we learn from; it is how we grow as individuals, and to set them right again simply takes a calm head and a healthy sense of humour.

Generous to a fault, Bruce cared about his family and wanted us all to be successful.  I appreciated his belief in me, and his quiet encouragement.  He inspired me to want to be a better person and I always appreciated that he believed in what I wanted to achieve in life.  He taught me to work hard, set goals and to aim high.  I admired my Uncle, so much so that it was Bruce who inspired my husband and I when we named our daughter.   My only regret is not sharing that story with Bruce, as I suspect he would have appreciated the irony!

Bruce was a loving husband, father and grandfather who wished only the best for his family.  The foundation for this love for family, and his selfless acts for others, particularly the community, was his faith.

It is rare that we ever get to meet people who are as kind, genuine and sincere as Bruce, and I count myself blessed to have known him and to have been influenced by him.

One of the most important lessons that Bruce taught me is that of paying it forward.  To do something selfless for another is what gives the world around us meaning and fulfillment.

Whilst I will mourn Bruce’s loss, this ache is only temporary.  What will be lasting is the memories, the lessons and the selfless acts of generosity and kindness he bestowed upon others – an example that all of us can learn from and apply in our own lives.
 I am thankful for this legacy.

 “What we do for ourselves dies with us, what we do for others and the world remains and is immortal”  Albert Pine

A Leaders Curse: It's not rocket science, or is it?

I have just had an epiphany.  


I blame my ability to read and social media.  

It is not a bad thing - on the contrary it is a powerful tool for reflection. 

This is what I like about social media.  It is full of hidden wonders waiting to be discovered, and much like Forest Gump's box of proverbial choccies, you never know what you might find.  It is surprising the things I find (are you the same?) as I scroll aimlessly through the 'crammed full of information' corners of my social media feeds.  

This time, tucked away under the Reading List of my Blogger feed, I stumbled upon a post from Edutopia, The Teacher Curse No One Wants To Talk About , and it got me to thinking. 

In a nutshell, the post talks about a problem that teachers with strong content knowledge can have, and that problem is that they can have an achilles heel (described as a blind spot) - in that they have forgotten how hard it was to learn all that content.  By forgetting how long it took them to learn that content, they are forgetting how long it will take to teach it, and in doing so, can make the assumption that the lessons being taught are clear, and engaging students.   (I am paraphrasing and if you have strong content but you are one of those teachers that do not have a blind spot regarding this, then by all means, disregard).   

The article highlights seven ways to rectify this - all of which are useful bits of advice - and they also point out further places where someone might read further on this area (apparently it is well discussed in other articles).  I will leave you to read these for yourself! (see above link)

Here is where the epiphany comes in.  

I think I might have this blind spot.  You see, this blind spot is not just something applicable only to teachers.  It afflicts leaders as well.   In my case, I think it might apply to the teaching of writing, using student voice, behaviour management, student agency, personalised learning methodology...oh I think this list could be longer than I care to admit! 

You see, I say 'It's not rocket science' all the time!   In my head it is not rocket science.  

Perhaps it is.  

Perhaps it is my own professional amnesia at play.  

Perhaps I have forgotten the years of personal research into these things (who am I kidding - I am still learning, every single day in fact) and that my content knowledge continues to grow and expand, but it has been a long road to where I am now.  It did not happen overnight.  

Perhaps I need to remember this when I wonder why teachers don't know or understand concepts that I have been honing and innovating with, my whole career.  

So, in an effort to be not only reflective but helpful to other leaders (who I am sure already know this), I have come up with some questions to help you overcome your own content blindness as a Leader.

How well do you articulate what your vision is for education? 
Is it shared?  
Is everyone on the same page and keen to go in the same direction?
How do you know this?

How much space do you give your team to explore alternatives and to innovate?
Are there systems and structures that allow your team to think about alternatives, to question, to wonder and to try out things? (this is what honed my content practice over the years) 
How strong is teacher inquiry at your place?  
Is curiosity and innovation rewarded and respected at your place?

How good are your training processes?  
How well do you grow your staff?
Are you giving staff the professional development they need so that they can develop their own 'content knowledge'?
How involved are you in this process?  
Do you invest heavily in this area?  (you can't expect your team to have a growing level of expertise if you don't invest in them) 
How up to date are you?  Do you understand current pedagogy and what place it plays in todays classrooms, let alone tomorrows, and how yesterdays influenced its development? (I think this is the most important thing to be aware of)

When you appoint new staff (experienced or new to their career), are you clear about what you are looking for?  *Hint - appointing 'mini me' teachers is not a particularly good way to solve this issue but I suspect this is a future post!

Self Review 
Do you use transformational processes like coaching to support teachers?
How do teachers share their expertise in your school and what role does self review play in assisting this?

What system do you have for self reviewing professional development and support systems in your school?
Your Blindspots
Do you know what they are?  
Have you spent time looking at this?
Do you know if it is your own strengths that are acting as a blindspot?  (I have written about this before on how your strengths can sometimes be your biggest blindspot)

Suffice to say, I will do my utmost to use my own questions to reflect on my own content blindspots, and I will be more mindful of 'it's not rocket science'.  

Well, I will try.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Student Voice and Agency - 'Pushing the Edge'

A short time ago I got asked by Greg Curran, mastermind behind  Pushing the Edge Consulting, if I would mind being interviewed for a podcast.

Initially I was a bit sceptical.

Not because I didn't believe in Greg, who does great things, but more because I wasn't sure I had anything worthy to share in a podcast.  I had listened to quite a few of Greg's interviews previously (I would highly recommend checking out his podcasts as they are brilliant) and I had some doubtful moments where I was concerned that no one would want to hear my wonderings, passionate ramblings and blunt challenges.

However, it was an awesome experience.

There are some learnings from this experience - I feel terribly sorry for Greg as it must have been a nightmare for him to sort out, edit and publish the final podcast.  We were meant to be talking about innovation and the Innovations team I had set up, and perhaps coaching, but in typical 'me' style, I became terribly animated about student voice, choice and agency (something I very passionate about) and I started rattling on.  

If I did it again I would pause more, stick to the topic and make it less of a nightmare to edit!! (sorry Greg)  I was pretty passionate about some of the topics, and Greg asked pertinent questions that in some respects I could have talked about for hours.  I am very impressed with how he cut the podcast because I know how hard it was to stop me from talking!  It is very lucky we did not talk coaching and innovation in the end because it would have been massive!

As I listened to the podcast, I forgot I was listening to myself - especially when I spoke about the vulnerable students.  (this was after I got over hearing myself sound a bit strange) As I heard myself, I am pleased to say I agreed with myself!  (Whew!)  It is true that I ask some big questions of people, and some of them are challenging, but I do not apologise for it.  All of our students are worth the same investment and all of our students deserve the best teacher they can have in front of them.


So, if you would like to be challenged, listen to me talk about things that I am passionate about and perhaps get a few hints that are useful for your school.

 - here is the link to the page.   

Whats inside the podcast: 

Discussion around these themes:

  • Internal Self Review Processes - asking questions of yourself, your team and your community to check in on what you are doing to make sure that you are doing what you say or think you are doing
  • Ways to get involved with this self review process
  • Community engagement - that old age chestnut - one which we all struggle with
  • Student voice/agency
  • Student ambassadors and using them to assist with employing new teachers
  • Challenging students and those who are most vulnerable

Some questions for you:

As a teacher, are you doing all that you can to give your students the best teacher?  

Are you challenging what you do, how you do and why you do it?

Do you ask your students for feedback, then act on what you find out?  

Do you ask them what they want to write about, what they think of your teaching, and what could happen in their school?  Then act on it?

Do you find alternative ways to support those students who are most challenging?  (this is the link to the blog post Greg uses as a catalyst for his podcast on challenging students "The Loss of Potential") 

My favourite quote from the podcast: 

"Schools are not built for adults they are built for students so shouldn't we be asking them?" (Me 2015)

Further reading should you take up the challenge:

How Challenging Students Teach Us.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Gallipoli - the NZ Story

Earlier in the year I was in Wellington for a conference.  Our conference dinner was at Te Papa Tongarewa, our National Museum, and as part of the evening, we were able to go and visit the 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war' exhibition.  




I am not often left speechless, but this exhibition was something quite special.  

Whilst I could wax lyrical about the exhibition, I will let the pictures paint the words.  If you think the photos I took were pretty amazing (and I am by no means a photographer so I am sorry about the quality), then imagine the scale of it when up close and personal!

What struck me was the size.  They are humongous.  Because they are so big, you can feel the magnitude of the moment.  The sounds, the atmosphere and the attention to detail works its magic in such a way that I felt a roller coaster of emotions; from the desolation that comes from knowing that war is wasteful and immune to the loss of human life, to heartache and sadness.   Most poignant for me was the nurse.  

As a kiwi it really bought home to me our role in that war, a role often overshadowed by the A in the ANZAC.  Our story is not always heard, as it can too easily be swallowed by the louder, larger and more pronounced voices.  But like other cultures, our kiwi families have stories and connections that are just as powerful, and I felt the tug of history reminding me of the people in my own family who scarified to be a part of a larger effort.  

Todays post has been a long time coming, waiting for me to have the time to compile - the timing is perfect.  With summer holidays here, my advice if you are able, is to take your family to Wellington and go and see this exhibition.  You will not be disappointed.  

The exhibition is set to run for a long time so add it to your bucket list of things to see.  

I promise you won't be disappointed. 

Least we forget. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Are National Standards An Excuse?

How often have you heard an educator say 'If only I didn't have to teach the standards" (insert assessment or standardised tool of choice).  Often, it is in the context of ruining creativity or killing off 'fun' in the classroom.  

I am going to be controversial - so here is your chance to stop reading.  Serious warning here, stop reading if your sensibilities are easily offended, especially if you are a teacher who has uttered statements similar, or you are a leader who only leads to the 'prescribed'.   You will not like it.  

Last chance - leave the page now.  

I call rubbish on the statement "If only I didn't have to..." and I call it what it is, an excuse.  

Yes, you read that right, I think it is an excuse. 

One of the definitions of 'excuse' is to release someone from a duty or requirement.  I can only really discuss this from the Kiwi perspective, but here in New Zealand, there is a requirement (in law) that every child is assessed against national standards.  The National Administration Guidelines (in particular Guideline 1) specify what the board and principal at each school is required to do.  Nowhere does it specify how you do that and nowhere does it suggest that a school or teacher suck the fun and creativity out of learning.  

As self managing schools with a world class national curriculum, we are merely limited by our imagination in terms of how we implement it.  Yes, we have a few requirements, but there is nothing in the legislation that tells us how we implement those requirements.  

It is ironic that we would use the National Standards (NS) as an excuse to not construct fabulous learning opportunities in our classrooms and schools.    We all know that an engaged student is one that will thrive and this in turn means we meet the NS.  The most important document at our disposal is the NZC (New Zealand Curriculum), in particular the front end of the curriculum, with the Vision, Values, Principles and Competencies.  What a rich source of inspiration lies within those pages! 

If you are one of those leaders that does not let their teachers explore, question, wonder and innovate using the front end of the curriculum because you are worried they are not teaching enough 'literacy and numeracy' then I urge you to think again.  Perhaps you are worried all this fun and creativity is impeding on students leaning the 'standards'?  Perhaps you have forgotten what the purpose of education is and what motivates and engages students?  Perhaps you have forgotten that the more engaged your students are the more likely the level of achievement will rise.   By all means ensure your staff understand data, pedagogy and how to accelerate, but allow them to do so creatively and with their own style.  This is not about the prescription but the delivery of the prescription, and you as the leader are the most influential in terms of allowing your team the freedom of how they administer it.   Give them the freedom to innovate and trust them - your reward will be increased success and engagement. 

If you are a teacher who has used the above excuse, then ask yourself this - why should a child be in your room?  What do you do that inspires and encourages any student to want to skip into your class each and every day, and most importantly, is that what you would want for your child?  The beauty of literacy and numeracy is that it can be taught by practically any medium you can conjure up.  The ability to be creative in your approach is simply limited by your own insecurities.  Examine what those are and use a critical lens to do so.  In my many years in education I have found most teachers to be control freaks (yes you are, you just think you are not) and therein lies the difficulty for some - letting go of control and handing it back to the students can be scary.  Just remember this - what does it feel like when your leader gives you freedom to choose how you teach, and trusts you to do it?  Is this not the same for students?  Give it a go - if you are unsure there are MANY places to learn how to jazz up your delivery and personalise the teaching - just google it! 

If you are a teacher in a school that doesn't have options for you to explore modern pathways, or you feel you don't have the freedom to innovate - ask.  Find out what sits behind that, and if you can, raise a respectful challenge by asking why.  If it is impossible, and your heart lies elsewhere, find the place where you can fly.  

So dear colleagues, don't use the standards as an excuse to not teach the way you know is right.  It is merely a tool.  Yes, it has requirements, but how you get there is not prescribed.  You have the flexibility and the mandate with our NZC to think outside the box.  Don't waste that opportunity - use it.  

Social Media and the Dark Side

Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube have revolutionised the way we connect, communicate and collaborate.  When I first started teaching, connecting with other classrooms around the word was problematic, took a long time, or  it was expensive.  You could write a letter and hope for a response, make a phone call (teleconferencing came later) but most times it was expensive and hardly collaborative.  It helped if you had a fancy speaker phone but even those were rare.  I remember the first fax my class sent and the thrill of receiving one back.  There we all were, crowded into the school office, whispering in an effort not to disturb the school secretary.  

Fun times.

Fast forward to now and the options for connecting are virtually endless.  The tools at my disposal as a leader (Twitter, Facebook, website, email and School App...) makes keeping the community informed so much easier.  On a personal level, some of these same tools make keeping in touch with family and friends around the world a breeze, and my own professional learning networks and development opportunities are only limited by a lack of time to engage with everyone! 

But all that glitters is not always gold.  

Sometimes social media is a device used to harm and sometimes an uninformed post written in haste or anger, or a small snippet of video without the context included, has the ability to inflame, incite and go viral.  The unintended consequences can go from ripple to tidal wave in a short time. 

Recently, a local High School was dragged through the media by a short Youtube clip showing only a small snippet of an incident.  Before the poster had a chance to work through the consequences of their actions, the clip had gone viral and the comments had turned into hateful threats.  

It is not an isolated case.  Schools all around the globe are dealing with comments made on social media every day that are often times out of context and lacking perspective.  There by the grace of the Universe go all of us.  It would be naive to think any of us are immune.  One small molehill can be blown into a mountain before we have time to even realise.

When someone posts a provocative statement or media clip, it has the potential to bring out the worst in humanity.  I have seen things on my own social network feeds where someone makes a comment about an incident, and before they can blink grown adults are inciting hate and violence towards the perpetrator of the incident.  What is often lacking is perspective and empathy.  It is particularly the case when the incidents involve 'bullying'.  What we never see in these short snippets of an incident is the context.  We don't know the children, how old they are, if they simply made a dumb decision (it happens, I dare you to say you have never made a stupid decision whilst you were navigating the waters of growing up), and we don't know what happened prior.   We also don't know what the school is doing about it or how much they have done but can't tell you about.   In truth, we know nothing.  

I know there are those who would say that what happens in a private Facebook post or social media site is within the freedom of speech realms and therefore perfectly fine.  To that I respond with the following suggestions. 

Things to consider when navigating social media posts:

1. Keep things in perspective.  
This is most important and all others boil down to this.  Do you know all the facts, are you aware of the context and how accurate is the account you are seeing or reading?  It is very easy to get caught up in the drama of an incident and feel outraged or great sympathy, but remember, if you don't have all the facts you can make it worse.  Lack of information should not be an excuse for an inappropriate response.

2. Before you comment think it through. 
If you are going to comment, remember the old saying, 'Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?'  Your comment could inflame things and make the situation worse.  When in doubt, take your hands off the keyboard. 

 3. Have a 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Moment.
By this I mean, try walking around in the shoes of the accused.  How would you feel if you were the child or the parents of the accused?  Especially when the most hostile and hateful of comments are being bandied around, and where suggestions such as calling for police intervention (not always helpful) are advised or worse, when there is a call for violence toward the perpetrator.   Again, keep things in perspective. 

4. Schools are communities and real people reside there.
Some posts can go viral and before you know it, people are making judgements on the school, its leadership, and the staff, all without any real knowledge or context.  These kind of hate cries hurt schools reputations and cause huge amounts of distress to all the people who work there and to other parents and children.  If the comments name people it is likely to be slanderous.  

5. You are an adult.
Sometimes the language and the threats that come after some posts is disgraceful.  The recent example on the news here in NZ showed what happens when things get out of hand and highlights the potential damage something like this can cause.    It was made all the worse by finding out that those who were making the threats and using the appalling language, were adults.  Not juveniles whose ability to reason is still being formed, but adults!  When adults are making comments that incite violence towards little children they really need to have a long hard look at themselves in a mirror.  

6. What goes online stays online. 
This is not a chalk or whiteboard graffiti moment.  If it is online, even if it gets taken down, it has a footprint that remains.  Did you know that everything you put on Facebook - even the characters you typed but deleted, are still retained, just incase they are needed for an investigation by the authorities later.  (there are so many security topics on this - google it to find out more) Even if you delete the post, it may well have been screen shot and saved by another user.  Remember, if unkind and inappropriate things are said about a child, that stays online.  I wonder, Is that appropriate? 

7. If you are the owner of the post, ask yourself these questions.
What am I wanting to achieve by posting this?  What is the response if it gets out of hand?  How do I feel about others inciting hate or violence - what is my moral obligation?  How would I feel if this was in reverse? If it was my family or my child, how would I feel?  When in doubt, take the post down.  Numerous countries, including New Zealand, have laws around protecting the rights of people online - best to err on the side of caution. 

8. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, report the post. 
Most social media sites allow a user to report inappropriate posts.  If you see a post that looks like it is getting out of hand or potentially harmful towards the school or a child/family - report it.  You can do this anonymously and the owner of the post will not know you did it.  

Perhaps what is needed, is a digital disclaimer by internet providers where users sign up to a code of conduct.  We expect our students to behave appropriately online and it would stand to reason that the same should be a an expectation of parents.    

In summary, social media has the power to be a force of great good for schools, but when the force turns bad it has the potiential to escalate fast.  Being mindful of the bigger picture and the wider context is important.   Sometimes it can be easy to forget there are real people at the other end of a screen,.  

As we head into the start of a new school year, perhaps now is a good time for our communities to consider their online footprint and etiquette.  If we teach our students to be mindful of what they post by having them consider 'is it kind, is it true and is it necessary', then we are going to make great inroads towards a better online environment.