A Week on from New Zealand’s darkest day.

It has taken me until now to put pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard, to express my absolute horror and sadness about the events of March 15, in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city I have lived in, now own a property in, have family members there and enjoy visiting regularly. It is hard to put into words my reaction–shock, horror, disbelief, grief and sadness. After knowing that our various family members were safe, my attention turned to those poor people, the 50 victims and their families. As the international news reports that I have access to rolled in, I found myself glued to the screen, unable to pull away, almost numb while I processed what I was seeing,

My thoughts since have swung from continued horror, grief and sadness to respect and admiration for my fellow Kiwis and in particular our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, as the world watches our country’s reaction to what has occurred. One of my colleagues here in Brazil said to me that there is always a silver lining in all events, no matter how bad and he is right. The silver lining for New Zealand will be the heightened respect, love and understanding that all Kiwis are offering to the Muslim community. For New Zealanders this has to mean a much greater awareness and understanding of this religion and the rights of all to worship in whatever manner they wish. Only good can come of this.

download-3For me, there are two aspects that impact my world as an educator. One is the absolute importance of intentionally educating our young people to become anti-racist, globally aware, inclusive citizens of the world. Are we doing this enough? Maybe not. Secondly, the power and importance of good leadership. Jacinda Ardern is showing the world, that leadership is about doing what’s right, in a compassionate and yet decisive manner. Leadership does not need to be hard-nosed, task-orientated and autocratic. In fact, I would say that the world needs more people-focused and participative leaders. There are lessons here for all of us.

Through others’ eyes

Most recently I read an interesting blog post by Dave Nussbaum about Tight and Loose Cultures http://behavioralscientist.org/tight-and-loose-cultures-a-conversation-with-michele-gelfand/ which highlighted how different cultures enforce norms in different ways, some very tightly and others quite loosely. One of the examples that was used was the tightness around how Singaporeans view the importing of gum compared with how this same topic would be viewed in the United States.

Working with cultural norms is so interesting within an international school where what is ok for one culture can be completely not ok for another. One issue that we are working on at present, is coming to school on time or attending every day. Where I come from these expectations would seem pretty normal for a school to be making, however I am well aware that this is not the case in all parts of the world and that as an educator, it is important that I understand this.

This takes me on to wonder, how you nudge a cultural norm or how you create your own as an institution. Is it ok to say to all of the participants that this is how we are going to behave here, when you know that this may not fit their particular cultural norm? My gut feeling is that it takes a high degree of emotional intelligence and cultural awareness to change practices that are not necessarily comfortable for everyone.

Another topic where we are seeing this cultural “rub” is in the area of student assessment systems. For some students and their families, it feels culturally safe and secure to maintain the same grading systems that have been in their family’s cultural world for generations. Everyone knows it and understands what it means, even if they can see the flaws. For myself, this is also true–when you, yourself have seen success in a particular system (for me this would have been in the now long-forgotten examination system) it is uncomfortable to have this questioned.

One of the hugely positive aspects about working outside of your own culture is the opportunity to question your own cultural norms, acknowledging them and also seeing them as the lens upon which you have viewed  your world in the past. They were not “wrong” or “right”, just a way of being for the time that was normal for me. I am grateful for this opportunity to learn about others’ cultural norms.

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Back in the trenches!

These past two weeks I have been back in the classroom full time, teaching 3 classes of Grade 7 Humanities each day. (We have been waiting on a newly appointed teacher to have his visa cleared and be authorised to teach in this country).

Needless to say it’s been quite a while since I’ve done this, in a full time capacity. It has been a great experience; energising, refreshing, humbling, challenging and overall all-consuming!

Interestingly in a discussion with my adult son, who is just starting out in the world of work, he said “Well done Mum, every boss should walk the talk, I don’t know if my bosses even know what I do!” I had to agree, it has  certainly been a worthwhile experience to walk in the shoes of those we lead.

Teaching kids is definitely energising. No one day or one lesson is ever the same. The responses they make, the ideas they have, the feedback they give–the classroom is not a passive place, it pulsates with the energy of the learners. I couldn’t help but be consumed by this, to the level where I felt it was all I could think about. This must be the lot of the teacher–driven by ideas and thoughts about the kids and their learning needs.

The experience was also refreshing. As I said to my own boss during the time, it’s a bit like riding a bike, you don’t forget and those long buried classroom management tricks popped back up at just the right times. Once a teacher, always a teacher!

Being there though was also humbling! I couldn’t help but remember what hard work it is, how small things like dried up white boards and failing internet, drive you crazy. It was a very good reminder of what it takes to be an effective teacher.

It was also challenging. Some sessions went very well and I felt that sense of accomplishment that we were making progress; others bombed and I found myself reflecting on why and what to do next. Another reminder for me that teachers have good days and bad, good lessons and bad, just like students, in fact, just like administrators.

As I head back to my office to prepare for next week, I am grateful for all teachers, those in my own school and those elsewhere around the world. You are all heroes! From all of us, who lead you, you are amazing! Thank you for what you do.

To Assess, To Assidere

To assess, to assidere !

Assessment, such a complex topic within education circles. Interesting that the Latin root word is assidere which means to “sit with”.In my new role, I have found myself knee-deep, down and dirty, in the world of assessment, grading and reporting in a Secondary School context. While this isn’t exactly a new topic for me, it’s definitely a new area of change management. Our school has worked hard over the years to move themselves forward in providing purposeful, meaningful feedback to students by way of a grading system. Academic achievement is measured without the confusion of behavioral issues such as meeting deadlines and homework completion expectations, so this is great.  There is a strong culture of understanding the difference between formative, summative and standardized assessments and this is well-communicated by both teachers and students. And yet…. The faculty know that they are not there yet! They use percentage gradings which have multiple complexities and teachers seem to be restricted by the confines of the data management system that is in place.

So what to do and what to do first? We have begun the year collectively working on our purpose. Recently we clarified for ourselves that, although grading has many purposes the most important for us is “to provide information for students for self-evaluation and future learning”. With this purpose in mind, we have created a study group of interested teachers whose task is to research the concept of standards-based assessment, what that looks like and how other schools have gone about moving into a SBG learning program. We have set some goals and are working with our teachers about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what we could do next.

This is great learning for me! I am finding myself buried in the work of experts in this field– Robert Manzano, Tom Guskey, Tom Schimmer, Ken OÇonnor. All of their work is fascinating, alongside my own favorite–John Hattie. While John’s work is not necessarily about grading systems, his advice about the importance of feedback, about teachers “knowing their impact” and about students knowing what they are learning, where they are at and what they need to do next, is keeping me on track. (Thank you John).

How do you change a school’s practice over time? I have always come from the core idea that change comes from within, it comes when teachers work together with school leaders talking, dialoguing, discussing, problem solving, trying things out, celebrating successes and evaluating impact.

It will be interesting to see how it goes…..

What works in professional learning?

As a school leader who spends quite a considerable amount of time and energy thinking about how best to provide, facilitate or organise continual professional learning for teachers, I am having an exciting time observing what appears to be an effective method of delivery in our school this week. Last year in my previous school and now again in my new setting, we are implementing the ‘lab site” method. What this means is that an expert is engaged to assist us make a long term impact upon teachers’ practice. The current consultant has been in our school three times over the past 12 months, for 5-6 days at a time. While here, our teachers are gathered together in groups of 4 or 5. They spend time each day discussing what they want to see the expert demonstrate, actually observe him or her teaching our students and then engage in dialogue with the expert and colleagues about what they have just observed. Targeted goals are set at the beginning of the week and revisited as we go.

As stated this method does appear to be effective. Indeed feedback from teachers is very positive. A new colleague states “it’s all about show not tell’ and I would have to agree. Many of us do learn by seeing, rather than by merely listening. We also learn, when the context is relevant and directly connected to the classroom;- in this instance the training makes use of our own classrooms in our own school. No heading off to a nice conference center here! The work is school based and school managed. There are many opportunities for collective reflection and participation. I guess the proof is in what happens next. Does this work translate directly into change in teacher’s practice? I believe it will. Collective and collaborative in-school professional development is the way ahead for implementing continuous improvement for all.

New places, new faces!

 

The school year is underway for me again! It is unbelievably my 32nd year in education which must mean that I have experienced the start of the school year 32 times. Wow! Amazingly I still get that excited nervous feeling, much like I am sure millions of kids around the globe also experience. Who will be my teacher? Will I make friends? Will I be ok? Will I learn anything? My questions are different, but the emotions are all the same.

This school start up is a particularly big one for me, as I have changed schools and leadership roles. After 28 years as an elementary or primary school principal, I have now moved into a position leading the teaching and learning in a school that caters for students from Early Years (Pre-Kindergarten, Pre-School) through to 12th Grade (or Year 13). It is a new and very exciting challenge for me, in a new and exciting country.

Being the “newbie’ is another interesting step. For years now, I have been helping teachers orientate themselves into new teaching roles, in a country usually completely different from their own. I have preached on and on about taking time to adjust, expecting highs and lows and being kind to oneself as the transition plays out. Now I am on the other side and I would have to say it’s not that easy. I have forgotten how uncomfortable it feels to be the one who doesn’t know anything, can’t find anything and has millions of questions to ask. So here’s my own 10 tips for those who like me, are starting a new job in a new country:

 

  1. Aim to achieve one new thing each day e.g. set up a bank account, walk to the shops, drive across town etc (Too many new things at once can feel overwhelming)
  2. Be kind to yourself, get lots of sleep and eat well
  3. Make your new accommodation as comfortable and as “home-like”as you can. It will be your refuge!
  4. Accept help from others
  5. Find a friend–usually those who are also new become your friends very quickly. Something about being in the same rocky boat.
  6. Visit the same places continuously e.g. the same coffee place, the same supermarket, the same bar (whatever is your fancy). After a while you will want to branch out, but the security in repeating the same routes will be reassuring
  7. Learn a few words in the language of your new country. You will feel so good when you can greet people in their own language.
  8. Stay in close contact with loved ones back home, their support will feel good (only if they are supportive)
  9. Be flexible–if it’s not the same as home, or the previous place that you have lived, then that’s ok, it is not supposed to be.
  10. Enjoy the experience! Being new can be a great time to re-energize yourself.

 

There will be challenging times, but I know it will be worth it.

Learner Agency

As a teacher and school leader, I am constantly searching for ways to develop in each individual learner, a strong sense of agency. Wikipedia defines learner agency as the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student/learner experiences in an educational situation. I do believe that the students in our schools today need to be active participants in their own learning process. Learning cannot be done to them, they must take an active role. Many education systems around the world espouse this believe in their mission statements. My own country, New Zealand has as its core vision statement the aim of developing students who are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.

Here is an example of one of our kindergarteners reflecting upon the progress he is making in learning to write. He comments on his first piece of writing, then on his latest attempt, he talks about what he can now do and what he will work on next time. He has a strong sense of agency; he knows that his teacher is there to help, support and guide him, but his learning is his alone.

 

Check out this clip from Hampden Street School, in Nelson New Zealand, where learner agency is valued and strategically developed:

http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Curriculum-resources/NZC-Online-blog/Learner-agency

Let’s keep working together to ensure that learner agency is developed, encouraged and valued–it’s what matters!