Looking Into Leadership:Creating a Home

I am very fortunate to be able to sing in our church choir, something which I really enjoy, even though I may not be opera voice quality. It’s fun to sing with a group and be a part of music ministry. Not long ago, our extraordinarily talented choir director talked to our group about his trip back to his ‘growing up’ parish to attend the funeral of a close family member. He spoke at length about how the beautifully historic church was full for the service, and how the priest’s words were both comforting and inspirational; how the voice of the choir, numbering over 60 people, was moving and uplifting.  But, as he spoke it became clear that he was describing more than all the ministries working in perfect concert at this celebration of life; he was talking about the experience of coming home. Of being in the place where memories are made, tears are shed, sibling rivalry and bickering are everyday life, and the place we all leave with a resolute determination to forge our own path, yet (hopefully) return to find a time to reconnect, to be thankful for the place of beginning again.

Our schools provide this same experience for ours students, and school staff understand that they play a critical role in creating this place of safety, tolerance, challenge and faith. They work relentlessly to create that kind of atmosphere. For some students, school is even more a home than their own home, sadly enough.

As leader, how does this environment become home for its staff? How does a leader take care of his/her staff so they can take care of the students? How does the leader create a place where challenge to embrace new teaching strategies is an expectation but not an overwhelming burden; where staff safety is guaranteed; where complacency is avoided by rigorous self-reflection; where the understanding that although the needs of the students come first is simply fundamental to the existence of the school, there will be support when teacher frustration raises its exhausted head because the needs are just too much. School staff is exceptionally good at creating the place of beginning again for their students. Leaders are tasked with the responsibility of creating the place of beginning again for staff. So, a few practical ideas just for starters…

  • Make a point of not only greeting people each morning, but take a tour around every day to touch base with your staff. Be interested in their stories – the caretaker who was up all night with his sick child, the teacher who has the NHL son living in the insanely competitive world of pro sport, the educational assistant who is taking care of elderly parents, the young teacher struggling to look like teaching is easy. Each staff person brings their lives to school with them, valiantly tries to leave them at the door, but still needs you to recognize that you know life is not just about work. While you’re all at work, it’s about the students, but your genuine interest in the stories of your staff outside of school will give both a greater sense of belonging to your school ‘home’.
  • Through your actions, recognize the fact that you work with good people – and keep encouraging and supporting those next steps. People who are challenged to step out of their comfort zone, who try new strategies, who challenge you as a leader to take stock of your own beliefs may be the most creative and innovative you’ll find. But – don’t be surprised when complications arise with/among these very same folks with big ideas. That’s ok. Your common ground is the same: your students. That understanding and the fact that you’ve established initial and ongoing connection with staff means you’ll have laid solid groundwork for working through issues if the going gets rough. Those difficult conversations are inevitable, but if they are rooted in relationship with staff and concern for students, you’ll be able to work to a successful end. (Most of the time. :))
  • Make ‘Thank you” a part of your daily vocabulary.Your home will be all the better for it.
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Looking Into Leadership 2 – Power, Pressure and the Leader’s Voice

Over the last number of years, my husband and I along with our friends have enjoyed annual summer motorbike trips to the US. Perhaps because we are on Harleys there seems this curiosity of American citizens to see what we weird creatures called Canadians are all about, This summer, with the US presidential election campaign creating a bizarre culture of chaos in the States, we found, in the western states anyhow, a great willingness to tell us about how one candidate known for outrageous statements is going to win this thing. According to one particular person, the candidate proclaimed that Canadians were ‘dying in the streets’ because our health care system is just so inefficient and far behind that people can’t receive the care they need.  We reassured this person that Canadians are fine, and although we may have health care issues that no, we are not dying in any street waiting for a surgery. Seriously, people.

What struck me was that the presidential candidate had put this out there – and the comment was not dissected, checked for facts, or completely dismissed. It was believed without question. Again, seriously, you people.

On a less judgemental note this encounter did get me thinking about the power of the leader’s voice and how critical it becomes as a leader to choose words carefully – to be the responsible spokesperson yet the passionate advocate with a big vision for the future. However, as a school leader, the pressure is on to have the answers and right now.  And, this the case on a daily basis. Your choices seem to be to barrel ahead and be good with off the cuff, or appear reluctant, tentative to take a stand. As a beginning administrator, what can you do? Some things that helped me out along the way:

Don’t be afraid to take a moment to think. Or maybe a day. When the pressure is on, people say all kinds of things that shouldn’t be said. I can very honestly say that the decisions I’ve come to regret are usually the ones made in the heat of the moment.

Refrain from thinking this is all on you. It isn’t. It’s all about your students, but you will be dealing with the most heightened of emotions from students, parents and teachers, and certainly not all groups will be pleased all the time. Sharpen your own toolkit when it comes to question technique and communication strategies, as you search for both fact and perception in tricky situations. Stick to the issue.  (I highly recommend the course Cognitive CoachingSMThe strategies within are a coaching model for working with teachers, but has tremendously helpful implications for every day interactions)

Find a mentor. Even though the pressure is on to be all things to all people, admin colleagues generally know this is an impossible expectation. So, reach out to a colleague for advice – someone you respect who will give you the straight goods, someone who will be on board with more professional conversations. Or, think of a few you might call, but do call. In my school division, I was so blessed to be a part of a smart, supportive groups of administrators, and I knew I could call any one of them at any time.

Then be a mentor. One of the best things that ever happened as a rookie was when a colleague called me up one day and asked my opinion on some district issue.  I couldn’t believe he was asking me anything – an experienced administrator asking the opinion of a rookie? Crazy. But so began a long collegial friendship which was a lifesaver, provided many opportunities for admin-type discussions, and gave me another side to my decision-making. Later on, it was my turn to call up a rookie and ask for an opinion, or to encourage the new kids to express themselves in admin meeting discussions. We all learn from each other.

Take time for reflection. A daily journal isn’t everybody’s thing, but I did keep a book going every year that included daily notes from phone calls, meetings, etc. and later on I began including some quick comments and questions on things I didn’t have time for at the moment but needed to look at later. This evolved into writing a little more, and changing my writing approach to reflect on human behaviour more than daily events. Write a few sentences each day – your reactions, your thoughts on the day. Keep writing.

Keep the feelers out there to gauge staff reactions and investment. Got a great new idea? As hard as it may be, welcome those who challenge you in an honest, forthright way. Sometimes the toughest things to hear are the most important. After all, do you really want your staff to follow blindly? Might sound idyllic but these smart people  have their own opinions, and expressing those opinions will keep you reflective and sharp if you let it. Question yourself: Does your idea need a recalibration? Are you moving too quickly? Who needs support? Being open to checks and balances will assure your staff that they are integral to moving forward successfully as a team.

Pray. ‘Nuf said.

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Looking into Leadership…Warts and All

Looking into Leadership….Know yourself, warts and all

As a young teacher, I was often simultaneously overwhelmed by the responsibility of teaching and overjoyed at the prospect of unlimited potential for creativity, challenge and fun in my classroom each day. And I thought the Grade 4 homeroom was the absolute best level to teach. However, after a number of classroom years I thought I should give school administration a try. Realistically I was blissfully unaware of all the challenges to come my way, but I had observed my principal, soaked up what I could, and was very lucky to work in a very collaborative school. (Back then we just knew we better be working together to pull off all the events we did!)

I am ever so thankful for the good folks in my first admin appointment who put up with a lot of missteps in those first years. I quickly noted that my safe place was still the teaching assignment, in pretty stark contrast to the minute by minute challenges of the admin world. The feeling that I was ‘on’ as soon as I walked through the door in the morning, and was needed to make decisions, lend a hand, advise, discipline, call parents, and find a second for lunch sometime during the day was another definition of overwhelming. I often wished I could just get my coat off before the first person rolled through the door. That was a dream.

I came to realize that this new side of the office door was going to be a ‘new’ busy place no matter what I wished for or wanted, and this is what I had signed up for. Well, maybe not this exactly, but no backing out now. I found that the decisions most important were not the ones involving things like timetable scheduling, event planning, or even budgeting. It was the emotional response I would have to situations that called for a cool head, a step back, a way to help others understand themselves and their actions; moreover, a way to help others work through situations while refraining from providing a one-sided quick fix. To do this I came to understand that while in the classroom I always strived to be the teacher the students wanted me to be; as administrator I was thinking about what my staff wanted me to be, how they would describe me to others, and how I would grow as an administrator. To do that  I knew I had to look inward and reflect on me as a person.

I needed to acknowledge the traits I admire in others, and those I aspired to be. That seemed easy. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a trusted, fair, collaborative, honest, kind yet firm when needed leader? But how would I communicate these traits consistently? How would my communication skills ensure that these traits be steadily apparent even in the most difficult of situations?

I needed to acknowledge the warts in myself that may influence my view of the school environment: those characteristics or habits of staff that I might view as problematic, or conversely they in me.  How would I respond constructively? What strategies and language would I use to be honest yet diplomatic to find the best in each person (teeth-gritting included)?

And, I needed to acknowledge that I did not have all the answers and likely never would, but knowing myself was a first step into leadership.


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The Feast That Nourishes Us All

I always feel blessed that I’ve had the opportunity in my school career to work with many kind and devoted teaching assistants. I know these fine people can feel under -appreciated, but they are truly invaluable! As Lent began this year, I found myself thinking about one lady and her story in particular. This lady worked as a teaching assistant, and was widely known for her compassion and kindness toward the students. As did the rest of the school community, I found her to be a lovely, generous and yet reserved person. She came to me one day with two requests: that she could provide lunch one day for the whole staff and that she be allowed to take the same day as a personal leave. Her offer to provide lunch for a staff of 20 was extraordinarily generous one, and I was even more surprised to find out that she had done this many times before. It always coincided with the date she requested every year for a personal leave day, and I wondered how this was going to happen. She assured me that she would bring all the lunch in before school, fully prepared, so it would be ready to be pulled out of the refrigerator at lunch time. She explained that the lunch was her way of thanking her friends, but wouldn’t be there to share it with us and simply smiled when I commented  on her generosity, but was a little puzzled by the gesture, and a reason for thanking us. With that smile but no further explanation, she went on her way, and sure enough, prepared a delicious lunch for everyone. And it was truly a feast of many dishes of her culture, appreciated by all. As we ate the story of how and why this gift came to be began to emerge. It seems that, a number of years prior, our lovely staff member had her life ripped apart in a a split seconds time. She and her family were travelling on a local secondary road, when another vehicle blasted through a stop sign and rammed her vehicle, taking her whole family from her. She was the only one left. I was stunned and saddened  at the story of such profound loss.

Such, then, is the meaning behind taking that particular day every year as personal leave. She attends Mass, and spends the day in prayer and reflection, devoting it to her family – and of course this is entirely understandable. What is a most humbling, though, is that through her own pain came this extraordinary gesture of giving to her friends, her way of thanking us for our continued friendship and support. We enjoyed a delicious lunch made all the more special because of the love in the gesture. We prayed together in thanksgiving for our friend, for solace for her wounds, and for her giving and humble spirit.

Our friend’s gesture gave us pause. As educators, we recognize the critical value of safety at school for our students, and throw all of our efforts into creating a challenging, nurturing, and safe learning environment for them. Although admirable, that common focus can blind us to our responsibility to take care of each other as adults.Not only the students come to school every day with a life story; our staff members have their own stories which are constantly put aside in the busyness of the day. We often have no idea what is happening outside school time in the lives of our colleagues. And in all honesty, its a rare move when one staff member thanks another simply for friendship and support.

All that can change.  Just a personal commitment to take a few minutes each day to be a friend to other staff members (especially the ones to whom a friendship seems unlikely). More than the perfunctory morning hello’s or the have a good night’s; more than assuming that the quiet staff member must be fine, or she’d say something. The recognition that we can only care for the students if we feel cared for ourselves will be the feast that nourishes us all.


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Courageous Leadership…Read the Whole Book

How does the commitment of a teacher to stay current in classroom teaching practices translate to school leadership? Why use precious and scarce time out of school to read more than catchy phrases and quick paragraphs on social media? Who has time for reflection, anyhow?

There was a day when the dreaded Book Report was an expectation of the Language Arts program. The traditional approach was deemed best: read the book, write the summary, present to class, maybe some personal art work to dress it up a bit. My classroom was no different – except that students had much more latitude in presentation strategies, and that helped the rather arduous task of listening to 24 book reports move along in a more interesting fashion. One day I was conferencing with students regarding their draft written book summaries, and had my conference – ee standing nervously beside me as I read his work. It was a well-written piece, summarized the theme of the book quite expertly, used surprisingly descriptive language, and was suspiciously professionally done. I commented to my now really sweating young man that the summary was quite amazing and asked to see the book. When he put the book down in front of me, you could almost hear his heart land on the floor with a thud. He had been busted –  copying the back cover of the book word for word, and handing it in as his own work. His explanation: what’s the point of doing all this reading and summarizing when it was all there on the back cover? After all, how could I write a better and more concise summary than that? (Suffice to say, we needed to review the purpose of the assignment, and yes, discussed plagiarism too.) We chatted further about how digging deeply means reading, reflecting, creating personal meaning from the material, and going forward with perhaps a different view. Off he went to try again.

Fast forward to today, where social media capitalizes on a busy teacher’s lack of time by simply writing the back cover of the book for us on every conceivable topic.  Actually overwhelming in its breadth, social media compels one to cruise through a few sites, some posts from conferences and talks, latch onto to some catchy phrases, then hope that professional development for the year has been addressed.  Will anything really authentically change in the classroom? Will anything change in the school? Relying on this approach means the book still exists largely unread; the missing piece of reflection leading to new paths really cannot occur in an honestly meaningful way. A genuine focus on one area for the year opens up the possibility for new growth as a teacher, excitement in the classroom, and an opportunity for courageous leadership on staff.

Be current, share knowledge,  and read the whole book.

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Psst….Your Leadership Skills are Showing….

In most schools in Southern Alberta, student teachers from our local university come and go quite regularly. I’m sure they all hope to be memorable, but the truth is, after so many of them come through, they kind of blend together into one eager (mostly), nervous (nearly always), smiling face. After they learn 1. the ropes of the staffroom: what’s in the fridge is not communal property, and don’t ever leave the coffee maker empty – and 2. the law of the parking lot: use the street to park and your life will be sooo much better – they generally get down to work with their supervising teacher and their students in the classrooms.  I did have a memorable conversation with one young man in the staff workroom one day. He was struggling with the photocopier and killing trees above all expectations. After we managed to save a forest by making some changes to his fervent copying, we began to chat about his experiences thus far at the school. Yes, he was enjoying his very first round as a student teacher, yes, the students were very welcoming and all was going well. As I turned to leave, he very casually remarked that while he would like to be a teacher, what he really wanted to be was a principal, and was my job very hard? I’m quite sure the only reply I could muster at first was a confused  ‘huh?’ look on my face. I think I sputtered something about him taking one step at a time, and having a long way to go before ever considering school administration. Or something like that. What’s even more strange is that this 24 year old kid seemed quite put out with my response, like I should have revealed the secrets of the galaxy in the workroom that day. He could then skip all those years of that pesky thing called teaching, and get right to the principal’s chair. He actually thought the principal was the most important person in the school.

There were two critical lessons this young man simply had to learn asap: 1. the most important people in the school are…..the students. That fact can never be overlooked or underestimated. If I decide to be a teacher I am bound to give my all to my students, no matter how difficult the day may be. And 2. teachers may not be working from a principal’s office, but they are leaders within the classroom and the school. Every single day.

I’ve worked with teachers who are truly brilliant – some who could (in my own opinion) be very successful in school administration. Some whose remarkable talent is best seen and served with their students.  The leadership all these teachers demonstrate each day is pure beauty, and these skills should be recognized.

I just might do that. Hey, that’s what blogging is for!

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The Things We Never Think We Have To Do….Are The Things We Must

There are likely many careers in which a person knows exactly what each day will bring but teaching is nothing like that. It’s a career in motion and, though it moves at different speeds, it is always full of surprising moments. Having said that, I remember that when my degree was all brand new I had some semblance of a plan for how my life as a teacher would lay out before me. I knew I had to be responsible to teach curricula, to maintain order in the classroom and to do it all with some sense of decorum. At least that’s what the university valiantly tried to tell me. At that point, though, I also figured there were things I just thought would never happen.

I never thought I’d have so much fun. After the first few nerve-wracking years, I settled in and let myself enjoy the characters I’d see every day. I’d come home with story after story of the things the students did or said – and thus became your typical teacher. We are all pretty guilty of that.

I never thought I’d have so much freedom to write, direct and get students of all ages excited about the arts. (Not that I ever learned to draw) I soon learned to appreciate the talent of the students around me and the crazy amount of time every staff was willing to add to their day to make sure Christmas concerts, drama nights, dinner theatres and all the rest – happened.

I never thought I’d love the freedom to celebrate faith in such a profound way. The number of school prayer services and Masses are too many to count but each one has been such a blessing. Being able to pray every day with students and talk about faith with honesty and reverence is a humbling gift. Together in faith, our joys and sorrows were shared on a daily basis. And because of that freedom, it made it so much easier to do the other things I never thought I’d have to do.

Like, I never thought I’d be asked by a Gr. 9 young man to pray with him after hearing the news his father had suffered a heart attack. I never thought I’d see a particularly troubled Jr. high student show up in my office one morning in tears after another awful night at home, and a night spent who-knows-where. And I never thought I’d be hearing the devastating news about a school in Taber in April 1999, just 20 minutes away, reeling from an unimaginable tragedy, changing the course of school communities forever.

As my years as a teacher moved along, I found myself saying a tearful good-bye to my first home – St. Catherine’s School in Picture Butte. Later on, saying farewell to St. Joseph’s in Coaldale and The Children of St. Martha’s Schools wasn’t any easier. I figured out I was just bad at this good-bye thing, although moving to SPFA was made so much easier with the warm welcome from the whole school community. In all, saying good-bye allowed me new experiences as a school administrator and the opportunity to get know four amazing school staffs and equally great colleagues on our Holy Spirit administrative team.

And as a young teacher with my newly polished degree and a long career ahead, I really never gave any thought to retirement. It was for old teachers and very, very far away. Yet, in the wink of an eye, here it is before me and I’m finding myself doing something else I never thought I’d have to – saying farewell to a profession that has been my heart and soul for many years. In a few weeks, I’ll hand in my keys and say good bye for the last time.  It has been a joyful, challenging and wonderful time and I wouldn’t change a thing. (Well, maybe a few things I wished I’d handled differently.) I pray that all of you – students, parents, teachers, support staff, admin colleagues, trustees – are richly blessed in your life journeys. With deep appreciation, I thank you for allowing me to be a part of your lives.

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