Sunday, June 21, 2015

The 'F' Word - Part Two

I recently blogged about 'Why Schools Need to Employ the 'F' Word More' and by 'F' word, I was referring to FUN.  In my last post I discussed the importance of authentic learning opportunities and engaging students in the learning process.  At the end of that post I made mention that we had a SNOW DAY.  

Today was SNOW DAY.  

Now, if you are unfamiliar with New Zealand, you may be wondering why on earth a school would go to the trouble of shipping in SNOW!  For those of you who experience snow as a regular winter occurrence, in countries (or parts of New Zealand) where snow is less novelty and more nuisance, then you may not appreciate just how exciting and amazing an opportunity to experience something as simple as snow, is.  However, here in Auckland, it does not snow.  There was a report once that downtown Auckland had a flurry back in 2011, but I don't believe that for a moment - we had moved here by then and that particular day was cold and wet only.  I am guessing that people mistook a shower of sleety hail as snow.  Auckland is too far north and too warm for snow.  We barely get frosts!

Living in a city that does not experience snow, and with no real mountains close by, our students do not get to play in snow, and snow is fun.  As an educator originally from the South Island of New Zealand, I am well versed in the fun opportunities snow presents - and I have blogged about how exciting snow is which you can read about here.  In that post I was gobsmacked that a school overseas had basically banned children from looking at and experiencing snow.  It defied logic to me.  I do not come from that 'school of thinking' at all - in fact, the more engaging the learning the more likely the learning will resonate with the student.  Once again, it does not seem like rocket science to me.  

So, we shipped in a truck load of SNOW!!  It arrived in the early hours of the morning (our property manager is an absolute treasure, and snapped pictures of it as they unloaded) and sat there waiting for the magic to begin.  

I can not even begin to describe how amazing it was.  Big, small and in-between, the students were mesmerised by the mound of snow.  The majority had never seen it, felt it or understood the reality of how cold snow is.  It was noisy but it was the noise of excitement and the squeals were squeals of delight!   

The language the students have been using to describe the cold, the ice, the slushy mess snow makes, have been the oral language experiences that teachers dream of.  For our English as Second Language students who are from tropical Pacific countries, who choose to wear bare feet, the experience was more powerful than reading it in a book or seeing it on the computer.  I am sure they will never forget the feeling of the cold seeping into their fingers and toes! (they were told to wear shoes but at our place, shoes are optional unless we are going on a school trip or needed for a specific duty or sport)

I have spent all day traipsing back and forth from our makeshift ski field.  I have managed to see the faces of all our students and it has been a real privilege and opportunity to live the world of SNOW through them.  However, as a result of spending so much of the day watching children play and explore, the paperwork on my desk is giving me sly looks that are making me feel guilty!!.  You know what?  It was worth it because it has been the best day I have had as a leader in a long time.  It was FUN.   Every single child was engaged and every single child was learning through play and exploration.  I can't wait to see what they write about! 

It is kind of ironic, in that the lower part of the country has had snow forecast and the children in the South Island will get to play in the real snow, and we've had to ship it in!  Whilst they are dealing with the realities of blanketed snow, here we are playing with shipped in snow as we bask in the mid winter sun.  However, real snow that falls softly from above or snow that is shipped in on the back of truck, it is all about the experience.  

I leave you with a wondering.  What are you doing to make learning fun and engaging?  What opportunities are you providing to extend your children's language and learning in an authentic way?  I am sure you are all doing amazing things, and I would love to hear them - sometimes sharing a story helps us all think of ways to engage and enthuse our learners!  

Gallery of Snow People 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why Schools Need To Employ the 'F' Word More

I use my favourite 'F' word at work all the time.  So much so, that I am sure that my staff get tired of hearing me banging on about it.  In fact, it is almost a running joke around our place.  Only, it is not a joke - I am quite serious.

This 'F' word you are wondering about?

I promise it is not the naughty one you might automatically head towards, although at times it seems as if it is almost as controversial, within some educational circles - especially nowadays with all this preoccupation with drumming in standards, formalised assessments and standardised testing.  Policies that do little to encourage students and staff alike to come to work and school each day.

I am talking about FUN.  That is correct - you read it right - FUN.

I am tired of people, and by people I mean politicians, sour pusses and general 'suck the enjoyment out of life' advocates, forgetting one very important truth.

Students are children.

Thats right - children.  They are not 'mini me' adults or boring old stick in the mud entities that should be forced into a system that doesn't acknowledge that they are children.   Children learn through playing, exploring and experiencing, and no manner of ill conceived policy or system changes that demand children sit still, be constantly tested and generally bore the heck out of them, will change that.  If anything, it will simply create a whole generation of brassed off young people who will either act out or turn into mindless drones.  That is not the world I want for my child or yours!  I could go on and on about this but suffice to say, it is time we stood up for the young people in our schools and for the people we work with.

So, we decided as a team that we would do something about it.  This year we wanted to make more of an effort to collaborate, provide authentic learning experiences and lift the 'fun' factor.  My DP and I had attended the NZPF (New Zealand Principals) conference last year, and it was quite frankly, outstanding.  In particular we really loved listening to UK guru Richard Gerver and we were particularly taken by his workshop on making school a place students want to come to each day.  A place they would skip into each morning and be 'lining up at the gate' to get in.

Richard talked about the school he had turned around and how at a staff meeting when he had posed the question 'how do we make our school a place our students want to be at', how a young teacher had suggested making it like Disney Land.  Not the physical space but the mental space.  In other words, to make school a place that made you feel like you were in Disney Land - where your heart and soul was inspired and you just couldn't wait to get there each day.  My DP and I resonated with this.  So we challenged our own staff and our Board of Trustees with that same ideal.

Long story short, after a number of vision and goal workshops and some serious navel gazing (including discussions around data and what makes a difference), we decided that 2015 was going to kick off with (and maintain) a focus on engaging our students, bringing back FUN, and providing real,  authentic learning opportunities.  It was not just about making our place a place that students wanted to be at and staff enjoyed working at, but also to give our students some really engaging things to write about.  Writing has always been our achilles heel in terms of data and it was time to look at this with a new lens.

I have blogged about the way we kicked off Inquiry Learning earlier this year, outlining how we used a 'crash landing', complete with cordoned off 'crash landing' site to spark our students imagination and get them excited about learning, but that is not all we have done.

Each term we have set aside specific days to collaborate as a whole school.  During our House and Values days, students have been engrossed in a multitude of engaging, hands on activities.   Students have participated in a wide range of Sports, including Dance and Skate Boarding (we have a class set of all the gear needed for Skate Boarding, because with Sport we believe it is important to expose our students to a wide range of codes - not just Rugby and Netball).   They have built, designed and created.  They have used digital media to create House jingles, cooked up yummy food, and worked together to make realistic looking wounds.

Then there was the learning around book week earlier this term.  Our Junior school explored all things The Gruffalo, including forests in classrooms and crazy dress up days, culminating in a final Gruffalo feast and celebration.  Our Senior school explored all things Harry Potter, which saw students making wands and each student getting a fabulous cloak to wear.  As you can imagine, there were all sorts of FUN shenanigans taking place.  Their big finale was a massive Hogwarts Feast, complete with a visit from Hagrid and a Quad Wizard Tournament (there was even fireworks!).

Please do not misunderstand me.  It is not about gimmicks or things that go 'whizzy bangy'.  It is also not about spending massive amounts of money, or by not being accountable.  It is, however, about engaging students, making things interesting and providing students with opportunities to be active participants in their learning.  It is about authentic learning opportunities and it is about our students improving.  We all know it is not rocket science - if you enjoy what you do then you want to come back.  It is early days, but mid year data is showing good shifts in all areas, and whilst I am reluctant to say it is because of this, I am confident it is part of the whole picture.

At the end of the day, we want our students to experience learning that spins their wheels and encourages them to bigger and better things.  Who knows what doors will open for our students all because we dared to do something FUN.

Anyways, must go - tomorrow is SNOW DAY (that is a big deal in a sub tropical city like Auckland where the closest thing to snow is possibly hail, and even that is rare) and I can't wait to see the snowmen/people our classes create, not too mention their faces when they see snow for the first time!!!

ps If life is about making memories, then what is your school doing to create memories of authentic and engaging learning?   How much of the 'F' word are you committed to?


ANZAC Inquiry - Our Place 

Harry Potter - Hagrid - Feasting - FUN

Harry Potter - Feasting Tables - Wizard Tournament 

The many faces of learning including Skate Boarding 

Creating Fake wounds - Vaseline, Tissue, Red Food Colouring
sprinkled with Cocoa powder 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Those Dreaded Few Words...Do You Have a Minute?

Imagine if you will, that you are sitting at your desk, busily beavering away at the three quadtrillion (yes that is a word) things on your 'to do' list.  Outwardly, you are looking calm and on top of all your tasks, even if your heart is doing that flip-jack, twitchy thing that suggests that inwardly, your outward demeanour is fake.

There is a knock on the partially open door (if you are lucky enough to get that heads up), and a face appears around the frame, with that 'look'.

"Do you have a minute?", the face asks.

Your heart sinks all the way to your sitz bone, you plaster a welcoming smile with perhaps an inquiring eyebrow lift, onto your face, and warmly usher them in.  (Already I can sense those of you who are 'eyebrow lifting' at the use of 'warmly' - if that is not you, feel free to replace with 'less than frosty' or 'cordial')

You then wait.

Sometimes, you wait with that sense of impending dread.

Talk to any leader, and ask them what kind of images are conjured up from the seemly innocuous statement that comes straight after a knock on your office door or a head that pops around the door frame with "Do you have a minute?".   I have not yet met one who tells me that it does not bring with it some sort of news that you most definitely do not want to hear.

The thing about a "Do you have a minute?" moment is that it is rarely a minute, and even rarer if it is a positive sharing of something to celebrate.  In fact, I am pretty confident finding a set of poultry dentures (hens teeth in case you missed the subtle reference) is more likely.

If you are new to leadership, and have not yet fallen prey to the "Do you have a minute?" moment, be wary it is not disguised as something else.  Other versions include:

- "Can I see you for a moment?"
- "When you are free, could you give me a call - it is important we have a 'quick' chat?", also masked as "Call me when you can" if you are offsite and at a meeting - it is especially scary if it has the word urgent anywhere in the message
- "Have you got a minute?"
- "Can I drop by and see you when you have a free minute?"
- "I just need to see you about something for a moment"
- "I hope you don't mind, but I just need a quick word"
- "Are you busy?" (seems a redundant question to ask don't you think, when anyone with a dollop of wisdom or functioning eyes in their head can see you are knees deep in compliance driven paperwork)
- "I just have a quick question"
- "I just wanted you to know" (incidentally, I have just updated this post to add this from feedback from a fellow leader - and on reflection, I think this particular statement has many stomach lurching moments attached to it...)

Either way, how you manage the "Do you have a minute?" moment at your place will either be to make a rod for your own back, where you are likely to become the doormat of other peoples problems and monkeys, or alternatively, assist your staff to grow a mindset that is strengths and problem solving based.  I like to call this the Future Focussed Model.

The Rod

This is where you drop everything the moment you get the 'knock' and then proceed to solve the others person problem for them.  Sometimes the drop everything approach is not an efficient use of your time.  Being available is not a bad thing, but being available 24 hours a day is unrealistic and possibly symptomatic that things are not as organised as they could be.  

The last thing you want by being there for eveyone all the time is to be the cause of why your team are unable to problem solve by themselves, take on new responsibilities and/or develop their skills like delegation and leadership.  When you help them learn strategies for problem solving themselves, you are building up their resilience and showing them that you trust them.  Looking at how things are delegated, what the lines of communication are and what causes bottlenecks at your place, are all good places to start.  A little self review into how your team deal with issues and problems could be quite an enlightening process.  

The Future Focussed Model (Aka strategic questions based on a GROWTH mindset)

The consensus with most people I have talked to about the "Do you have a minute?" moment is that having a process is useful because simply saying no is problematic, and sorting the issue for everyone all the time creates a rod of dependency that shifts the monkey from them to you.  Generally when someone wants your time what they are really asking for is your undivided attention and whatever is sitting topmost in their mind is important to them.  In our leadership role it is important to acknowledge the people we work with and to be available and approachable.  Here is where a process - or model - is helpful.  Having a model to work through helps you shift though the various nuances that sit behind the 'Do you have a minute?" moment, and determine how much time you need to give.  

Sometimes people just want to be heard, and when you ask 'what would you like me to do?', they will tell you they just wanted to get it off their chest.  Investing some time for people in these situations is never a bad thing - you just need to make sure that you schedule in the time for it to occur.

For me it is a bit of a juggling act.  I have an innate sense of curiosity and possibly a bit of a sixth sense (honed from more than my fair share of 'have you got a minute' moments that have caused the tummy to clench and blood to run cold) in terms of judging the seriousness of the "Do you have a minute" moment.  I always like a bit of a heads up then I can determine where the issue fits into my priority list - often one persons priority is not always as high as yours.

I now tend to ask a few key questions that help me decide the following:

  • how serious the issue is likely to be
  • how much time I will need to invest
  • whether I am just needed to be used as a sounding board
  • If I am the right person to be involved

I have always used questions to help me find out more, both as a teacher with students and as a leader with my team.  Sometimes it is all too easy to rush into a problem solving approach with limited information and attempt to 'rescue' the situation.  This can end up in disaster.  In this scenario, some well placed and well timed questions can make all the difference.  

One of the processes I have found to be most helpful in recent years has been to employ a coaching approach.  I particularly like to use some solutions focussed tools such as the scale to help me determine which direction to take  This is especially useful if the issue is one that belongs in the hands of the person who bought the issue to you.  Obviously if its urgent, fits under a health and safety umbrella, or is a major PR blunder, then I would not use a coaching approach.  In that instance you go into a different mode, and that is a number of blog posts on their own!  Using a Future Focussed Model helps you determine the right course to take.    

Some Useful Questions:

  • What solutions have you already thought about?  

Encouraging your team to think of at least two alternative solutions before they knock on your door helps your team develop problem solving strategies that they can employ at other times - over time this will decrease their reliance on you as the sole problem solver - and increase their own skills.

  • On a scale of one to ten, with one being very serious and very urgent and ten being not very serious or urgent at all, how serious and urgent is this issue to you?

This helps you, and them, quickly assess how much time might be needed and where it will fit into your priority list.  It also addresses that age old concern of being thought of as being selfish, unapproachable, 'unleaderlike' or just plain rude and self absorbed if you say no.  This way you are not saying no, simply rescheduling to a more appropriate time.  Just make sure you follow through. 

  • How much time do you need?

This seems obvious, but sometimes we are not so great at cutting to the chase.  If you ask this question and they need ten minutes but you have five, suggesting the come back at a later time is going to be beneficial to you both.  Sometimes people really do only need a few minutes for a yes or no (for example, it might be a budgetary decision) - asking this question can save you all time.  On average it takes 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption so its worth asking this question to save you later angst! 

  • In what way do you need my help?  What might that look like?

This helps you and the other person nut out what exactly they need your help with.  It also helps you determine if you are indeed the right person to assist - see the next question. 

  • Am I the right person to assist you, or can you think of someone else who might be better placed to help?

This one is important.  Not all issues are best sorted by you.  This is why we have teams.  Think of the strengths in your team.  Sometimes someone else is better placed to assist someone and this question can help you and them decide if this is the case. 

Whose Monkey is it and do you have a Gate Keeper?

Think about the resources in your school or workplace and ask yourself how well do you use them to assist with the "Do you have a minute?" moment.  One in particular is your PA.  If you have a Personal Assistant, in what way can you use them more effectively as your Gate Keeper?  If people have to go through them to see you, they are less likely to just 'drop' in and leave their 'monkey' with you.  At my place, my PA, Receptionist and all office staff are exceptionally skilled at being the Gate Keeper.  They know how to head pesky salespeople off at the pass, and they are adept at making sure any one with a concern sees the right person.  If you don't have office staff for many hours a week (I only had a part time Secretary when I was a teaching Principal in a small school) then try and schedule them to be working when you are in your office.  Train them up to be a great Gate Keeper and this will help you no end, and in particular, it will keep those pesky monkeys that belong to other people sitting on their shoulders!   It is not the be all and end all, but great things can be accomplished with small steps and making the best use of your available resources is important. 


Finally, this post is not hard and fast, and I do not pretend to be the expert.  I have made more than my fair share of mistakes in this regard and I am confident there are plenty of people over the years who have found me to be unapproachable or less than ideal in these situations, at times.  I have however worked hard to learn from each and every mistake I have made, tried to make amends the next time, and make things better.  This post is based on some of those reflections and from discussions with my colleagues.  

One of the things I have noted when discussing this with my colleagues is that there have been times where they have walked into a new situation as a leader, only to find a culture of learned helplessness.  What they noted is that when you first start growing peoples problem solving ability, it is not always welcome.  Probably the most successful approach that I have found thus far for encouraging healthy problem solving, professional efficacy and resilience, has been through educational coaching, especially Solutions Focussed.  

The problem with leadership is that what one person sees as fabulous another sees as insufficient.  I have blogged about how our strengths can be our greatest asset or our greatest downside, and the way we manage interruptions of the "Do you have a minute?' kind are testament to this.  At the end of the day, your role is important and knowing how to prioritise the "Do you have a minute?" moment so that you are not inundated with other peoples monkeys is a key element in assisting you to manage your workload and stress levels.  Most importantly, it helps develop the culture at your place so that your team has a growth mindset and they are able to problem solve and grow their own leadership skills.  They may not thank you for it initially but persevere because long term, this will be the most important legacy you will leave them with.  

At the end of the day, "Do you have a minute?" can either be something you dread or a smooth process that grows the culture at your place.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

BMWs and Fur Coats

Recently I had the privilege to visit another school with my Digital Improvement Team leader.   It gave us the opportunity to converse with other like minded educationalists, poke around in a few of their classrooms, and most importantly, see education through the lens of someone other than ourselves.   

It is not often we get an opportunity to escape our own reality and view another schools vision and place in the educational world. 

Our trip was set up and arranged by Mary (from Cyclone) after the two of us had talked all things digital and educationally innovative one day over coffee.  Mary had thought we might get some useful insights from this particular school, and sensed a similar philosophy running through the two schools, and felt that we might find their story interesting.  

She wasn’t wrong.   

We were looked after by the two Deputy Principals.  Both of whom took the time to talk with us about their schools journey, the way they had navigated the digital landscape, where they had been, where they are now, and how important quality teaching is, irrespective of the 'flavour' of the journey.    

We discussed appreciative inquiry, and where this fits into the digital landscape – sharing our own mini inquiry around how tech can be used to facilitate accelerated learning.    It is at this point that one of the Dp's made the sage comment that it was important to ensure that teachers didn’t drown under the barrage of inquiring into this and into that (something that seems very popular at the moment), which we agreed with.  We explained how our digital improvement team had carefully scaffolded the inquiry so that it was neither onerous or heavy on workload and time.  We explained how this was done deliberately to decrease the teacher concerns about time and workload – two of the biggest things teachers complain about. 

It is at this point that the Dp said – “oh – the BMW people on the staff”. 

My blank look indicated I had not heard of the BMW people before (I have since used ‘auntie’ google and discovered it is indeed real and it is just me that is obvlivious to the term). 

“The what?” I replied. 

(warning - a descriptive word that may cause the sensitivities in others to tremble is imminent - so heads up dear reader - if the odd curse word causes you a discombobulation - stop reading now)

“BMW – you know - the bitching, moaning and whining club”

Not a term I had heard before but certainly one I understood.  There are BMW clubs in most organisations and it is quite true that ensuing the BMW club is silenced is indeed something of great importance, as the BMW club has the potential to derail any project if not carefully managed. 

We talked a little further about quality teaching and how this underpins everything, and how important building teacher capacity is.  In particular, it is not a teachers ability to use tech (or any other such tool) that is important, but their mindset.

I couldn’t agree more.

Expensive tech gear in the hands of a teacher who is less than effective is just that – expensive kit in the hands of an ineffective teacher.   In classes with a lot of technology (1-1 devices for example) if the teacher is effective it is simply another tool for the students to access to enhance learning, but in the hands of an ineffective teacher, it is another ‘thing’ to hide behind – much like an electronic version of worksheets or ‘busy work’.   In other words, it is a case of all style and no substance, or as the other Dp referred to it later as we were in a class – "all fur coat with nothing under it".   (Another term I was unfamiliar with but also quite a popular anology according to ‘auntie google’)

We were then escorted through a selected group of classes (we were short on time so just had a snapshot across the school).  We didn’t see anything super ‘whizzy or bangy’, but we did see great teaching and fabulous examples of personalized learning (constructivist/developmental/contract based/etc – pick your flavour depending on which era of teacher you are – in todays language it is personalized learning).  Students were using tech in the way that they are meant to – as a tool to enhance learning.  If tech is what they need, that was what they were using.  If a pen and paper suited the task more, then that was what they used.   We also saw a range of MLE furniture, but again this was being used to enhance the learning environment and was not the main driver or focus. 

Can I say that is was refreshing.  

I get a bit tired of hearing so called ‘gurus’ tell my teachers that it has to be this way, or that.  I believe an effective teacher helps his or her students find and choose the tool or resource that best suits the job.  Sometimes that tool is physical (like tech) and other times, that tool is a mindset, value, aptitude or skill.  I have already written on the difference between MLE (Modern Learning Environment) versus MLM (Modern Learning Mindset) so I won't rehash that here.  

Finally, it is not only a privilege to visit another schools patch, but also an important  aspect of our own development.  By stepping outside of our own mindset, it allows us to review what is happening at our place, critique what is effective, and wonder about ‘what ifs’ and how the things we have seen might make a difference to our own practice.  It can be confronting and challenging, especialy if you end up questioning what you do, but that is never a bad thing.  At the very least it can be a validating process for what you do in your own school.   The more we all share, the more we all learn and the better our system is for it.  


1. Coffee is a wonderful thing!  

It is useful for sparking ideas, sharing of stories and finding out from educational reps where the ‘like minded’ people who think like you, are hiding!   Don’t turn down the offer to talk to a rep over coffee – you never know what fabulous opportunities might come from it.  Your reps are in the know – especially if, like Mary, they are ex teachers themselves.  The savvy ones, like Mary, can hook up like minds.  In education, that is never a bad thing!  Imagine the amazing things a group of innovative like minds might cook up!!  If anything it could be dangerous!

2. Beware the BMW club.  

Figure out who they are, and be on the look out for ways to manage them.  Having a BMW, if managed well, and if we look at it from a positive growth mindset lens, can help your educational garage fine tune.   At the very minimum, a BMW will always be your devils advocate.  See what ways you can bring them on board with any initiatives you might be implementing - better the squeaky wheel you know about than the one you don't!

3. Check your wardrobe for fur coats!

Make sure your fur coat is not just style but also substance!  Ensure it is teamed up with some stylish pants and a pair of sturdy but fabulous boots!  Fur coats are useless on their own - whats more important is what is underneath! 

4. Learn from your like minded colleagues!  

Every school has a journey and story to tell, and each of our colleagues have things to share with us.  This is especially true of those schools whose philosophical grounding is along the same lines of your own.  Schools are doing amazing things everyday and going out and seeing them in operation is a privilege and a rewarding chance to experience another schools reality.  

5. Don't be afraid to share, celebrate and question your own journey.  

Sometimes looking at what you are doing in comparison to another school allows you the chance to see what you are doing through a new lens.  Challenging as this is, the reward is worth it.