Public Education Miracles

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I saw a miracle on Thursday at one of our schools.

A young man, about ten years old, who has struggled with significant autism issues throughout his life stood in front of a class of older students and confidently delivered a speech about World Autism Awareness Day (April 2, 2015).

Autism dayThe older students listened respectfully and the teachers watched with tears in their eyes. They know how far he has come.

The miracle isn’t that he was at the front of the classroom delivering his speech, as wonderful as that was.

The miracle is the gift of the people in our schools who work with children and with patience, and never stop until they find the key to each child’s success.

That’s a miracle that happens every day in our schools.

Wow.

Gender Neutral School Bathrooms

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It can be challenging to ensure student safety in school bathrooms. Supervision is difficult while still maintaining student privacy. Some children are too anxious to go to the bathroom all day to the very real detriment of their physical health. Also, even in elementary schools, not all students are comfortable with their gender identity. This is widely recognized as many school districts have policies and procedures to address safety and gender identity issues for their students and staff. School District No. 46 (Sunshine Coast) recognized an opportunity to address some of these issues directly as we planned and built our new Gibsons Elementary School.

IMG_6395Gender-free bathrooms are common in our lives and always have been. Our household bathrooms have never had male and female signs on them. In our homes we automatically replace signs with respect and reasonable procedures to ensure privacy and comfort. In designing our new school we knew we could replicate this concept for the benefit of students’ physical and mental health.

IMG_6397Students access private, well-constructed toilet stalls and then wash up in a communal circular wash basin that is comfortably visible from the hallway.

The school has been open to students for four months now. Students don’t really talk about their school bathrooms; the bathrooms are not different from home, there is little to talk about.

The district is very pleased that our students are safer and more comfortable.IMG_6396Designing a school bathroom in this way erases any concerns students might experience. Bullying would be very difficult and gender is a non-issue.

When we take proactive measures to ensure our students’ mental and physical health, they are free to focus on their learning and simply enjoy being a student.

*Special thank you to Gibsons Elementary School Principal Deborah Luporini for initiating and following through on this initiative during the building process. Further appreciation is due to our very supportive Board of Education for its endorsement of gender-neutral washrooms.

SD No. 46: The Right Direction

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I heard a terrific retirement, “do you remember when”, story at the recent Sunshine Coast Teachers’ Association retirement celebration. One teacher, Barry, said that he and his teaching partner, Mike, would often be out on field trips with their students. At various points in the day Barry would be at the front of the group of students and Mike would be watching from the end of the line.  Barry would check in on the students with Mike with a glance back. Mike would quickly flash the, “OK”, signal and on they and their charges would go.

I have an image of the two of them, marching along a path on a field trip or in more regular classroom lessons and activities, checking in with each other as partners as they move through the days of learning and teaching.

I love this simple story. It is a terrific metaphor for who teachers and all educational staff are and what they do.

“Are the kids okay? Are we going in the right direction?”

“Yes! The kids are okay. We’ve got them all.”

Parents invest such trust in their children’s educators. They trust that we will keep their children safe. They trust that we will provide the excellent education that B.C. schools are so well known for. They trust that we will talk with them about academic and social challenges and successes that their children experience at school. They trust that our hearts are in the right place and that their children are our priority. They trust that the kids are okay.

We are in the last couple of weeks of school for 2011/ 2012.  Stories of exciting moments in education are being shared at retirement celebrations and end of the year gatherings. I love to hear the stories of mutual support, of love for students and their learning, of the enthusiasm that makes educators special and makes the work so rewarding. I hear the stories of dedication to public education, to kids and to each other.

Thank you to all staff in our district for a challenging but still wonderful year for students.

Thank you to the retiring staff of SD No. 46. You have dedicated your professional lives to changing students’ lives, to supporting colleagues and to making things better.  You are special, and you have made a difference.

“Are the kids okay? Are we going in the right direction?”

“Yes! The kids are okay. We’ve got them all. “

“Let’s keep going.”

Teachers and Principals gathered with trustees and senior administration at the annual retirement luncheon to celebrate their dedication to students and each other. Best wishes to all!

I CAN DO THAT!

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The motto in Bill Clarke’s carpentry and joinery class at Elphinstone Secondary School in Gibsons is, “I CAN DO THAT!” Bill is teaching his students how to research, plan, problem-solve, communicate and safely complete a carpentry task. Students leave Bill’s classroom as confident learners ready to move on to the next stage in their development as carpenters.

The rest of my visit at Elphinstone confirmed for me yet again the exceptional quality and variety of education that Sunshine Coast students experience. I chatted with teachers who are passionate about their subjects and devoted to their students. They proudly described their programs, boasted of their students’ achievements and demonstrated exceptional student engagement as Principal Fred Thorsell and I observed their classes in action.  The teachers were using (and experimenting!) with technology to enhance learning. Engaged students chatted enthusiastically about their projects and studies.  I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with a group of students who described their school as positive and caring with great teachers who know and respect them as individuals.

As I reflect on the, “I CAN DO THAT!” philosophy from the carpentry class, I realize that it extends far beyond Bill’s class. The entire school has an, “I CAN DO THAT!” attitude. Teachers, administration, support staff and parents are involved together in making Elphinstone a great school.

The Ministry of Education has recently released the BC Education plan to put forward a vision for a positive and productive future for education.   As we discuss the BC Education Plan we need to embrace our proven  traditions that motivate and excite students in their learning. At the same time, it is our responsibility to learn about new, research-based ideas to teach for the changing world that our students are growing into.  Deep and engaging discussions about instruction, assessment, evaluation, technology, reporting and parent engagement are taking place across our province and around the world

Is it possible to take an educational system that was developed in a time very different from our own and update it?  Can we develop an educational system that is based on solid research, creativity and collaboration ?

We can look to Bill’s students to have the right attitude that will ensure our success.

“WE CAN DO THAT!

Canoeing: a Metaphor for Leadership

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After an excellent all day session of discussion and review of district and school plans and goals, the principals, assistant superintendent and superintendent of School District #46 (Sunshine Coast) climbed into two 31 foot Nootka canoes in Pender Harbour on the beautiful Sunshine Coast. We were joined by elder Barb Higgins of the Sechelt First Nation who told us stories of the values, culture and history of the region as we paddled. We were guided on our trip by Ed Hill and Fred Stark, former RCMP officers, who taught us not just about how to paddle in such extraordinary craft, but how to work as a team, how to share leadership, how to mentor and how to be in harmony with others to accomplish a task. When we returned to shore two hours later we assembled in a traditional circle and shared our appreciation for the experience, and we celebrated our success.

We learned some key lessons on our journey along the coast that can be tied directly to our work of motivating, encouraging and supporting staff and students in our schools.

Be Positive

    • There is no room in the canoe for negative energy. If just one person in the canoe is negative it can be felt immediately by the whole group. Interpersonal conflict, bad feelings towards others, anger or frustration will slow the canoe. A leader needs to be sensitive to these conflicts and support their resolution so that the team is functioning well again. A high degree of empathy for others is required to respect where everyone is on his or her personal journey as well as the journey of the group.

Share Leadership

    • Our leader watched from the stern, scanning for dangers well in front of the canoe, changing direction as appropriate to avoid major obstacles.  He knew our general direction, had checked the weather ahead of time and steered our canoes to our destination. His use of data (GPS!)  and knowledge of the waters helped us to understand how to best move forward as a team.
    • At times we came to narrow and shallow areas. Barnacle encrusted rocks seemed to emerge from the ocean floor threatening to damage the canoe. The paddler in the bow became the leader. She watched closely for the dangers, moved with the support of just a couple of other paddlers so that our speed forward was not too great and adjusted moment by moment to ensure that we carefully advanced, but the canoe kept moving. Her constant and positive communication with her partner in the stern of the canoe ensured that all paddlers knew what was required and how we can support her leadership at that time.
    • In education we all show leadership. At different times we are in the stern, the bow, or providing the collective strength in the middle to move us all forward: all of us have opportunities to show leadership and commitment to learning and all can choose to work together in a positive way.

Mentor Others

    • In the canoe, a wide range of paddling experience came together from different backgrounds. Those of us with less experience brought enthusiasm and a desire to learn. Those with experience and skill taught us and encouraged us to continue and to take on leadership positions as our skills developed. Throughout our journey there was laughter, encouragement and support for each other. Constant communication kept the paddles moving in harmony.

As we begin this school year we can look forward to sharing leadership opportunities to support student learning. With an optimistic approach to any trials or challenges that may come along, we will provide the education that all of our students deserve.

Students: “Help me to feel welcome. Teach me in the way that I learn!”

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We have just completed and analyzed our online School Climate Survey of all students, staff and parents from grades four to twelve.  Our district survey was based on the Ministry of Education’s survey. This was a fascinating exercise to explore how our students, parents and staff are feeling about their school environment, its safety and inclusiveness. The data has been broken down to the school level and provided to each school’s Safe School Team as a part of the data to inform their school improvement plans. Our district committee has been analyzing the results to inform our next move to supporting students.

An eye-opening response that really made us pay attention was from the following question:

“If you do not feel that you are welcome or that you belong, do you think it is because of any of the following?” ( A list was provided.)

26% of students replied that it is “The way I learn.”

37% of staff replied that it is, “The way they learn.”

36% of parents replied that it is, “The way they learn.”

Our staff work very hard to ensure that our schools are warm and welcoming environments for our students. They have strong character education programs, they model and expect appropriate behaviour, they are dedicated professionals who come to school every day welcoming their students and hoping and working toward the very best for them. They differentiate their instruction, utilize assistive technology, Smart boards, ipods, etc. Our schools are great places to spend the day learning. For almost all students.

Learning Styles

Not All Kids Learn the Same Way—and They May Learn Differently Than the Way the Teacher Teaches

However, we now have this information that indicates that the way many students learn is creating a significant barrier for their feelings of being accepted in the school community. Students, their parents and the staff who teach them all agree on this point to a significant degree. One quarter of our students who don’t feel welcome indicate that their discomfort at school is because of the way they learn.

We will use the information from our survey to hone our character education programs, some of our practices for communication and some other matters. However, this particular response from students, staff and parents indicates that we have no ethical choice other than to work very hard to learn how to better understand the learning styles of all of our students to help them feel welcome in their own schools.

It is interesting how a simple survey can confirm so much of what modern educational and brain research can tell us about teaching and learning for children.

Professional Learning Communities: almost magic!

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What a terrific visit I had at one of our schools during an after school staff meeting. What we used to call staff meetings are now so much more than the image that mundane name conjures up. Long gone are extended discussions of who is going on field trips and complaints about student behaviour. Discussions of fundraising and information items “from the office” have long since been relegated to online posts and emails to  and from staff. Now teachers talk about how they are going to improve their practice and support students to be more successful.

The principal had organized the meeting (as she does all of her meetings) by developing with her staff a mix of discussions that were focused on student learning. The resource teacher guided the teachers through data analysis specifically related to the school improvement goals. The literacy coach discussed the ongoing triad model in which teachers work as a team to deliver program to students with the focus being on excellence in research based instruction and demonstrated student improvement. This is the highest form of professional development directly related to the work of teaching kids.  All staff participated actively in the discussions and brought out reflections of teaching strategies that had gone very well, and those that had not gone so well, in moving students forward. Teachers felt comfortable sharing their thoughts, their successes and their failures and were anxious to probe each other for their thoughts about where they may have improved and will in the future.

Equally clear during the discussions is that this seventy-five minute staff meeting was not over and never would be. The teachers left the room still chatting about the discussions that had taken place. It was evident that teachers in this school visit each other constantly from the earliest arrival in the morning until the last light is shut off at the end of the day. They discuss individual students whom they are trying to move forward in their learning. they chat with the student’s previous teacher to try to discover “what worked” for her. They discuss how to keep the class positively engaged in meaningful learning activities while working with smaller groups in Guided Reading or math problem-solving activities. They discuss with their resource teacher how to support the most needy of students in their classroom. They chat with the principal about her thoughts regarding classroom management, student learning, and determine ambitious goals for their students. The leaning never stops for this staff; it is the natural flow of the life of the school.

There is a place for formal Professional Learning Community meetings, carefully constructed, planned and timed. They must be solidly based on comprehensive school improvement planning and based on accurate, regular individualized student assessment. The agenda needs to reflect the needs of all teachers to have an impact on all students. All teachers need to be offered an opportunity to participate and lead portions of the meeting and a dynamic interaction needs to be structured into the meeting. The regular reconnecting through a formal Professional Learning Community meeting is very important to continuing to energize the dialogue on student learning and to flex to the changing needs of the learners’ academic needs.

Someone I was speaking to this week referred to the ideal school, a school where any one of us would be thrilled to be a teacher, a principal or, most importantly, a student,  as an ongoing Professional Learning Community.  Having seen it, I couldn’t agree more.

For a very clear summary of the rationale and elements of an effective Professional Learning Community. please see http://www.edugains.ca and search for “plc”