Good-bye to the 2020-2021 School Year

What a year!

I had scheduled our last assembly of the year on the All Students @Livingstone TEAM to stay in keeping with our COVID cohorts that are still in place until the end on the year. For the first time in my experience, school is not in session due to the heat wave. I just can’t believe it! What a year. Looks like students will be participating in the assembly from home with a challenge to write, draw, or film their own goodbye to the 2020-2021 school year.

We are starting to emerge into a world where COVID does not control all our decisions. 

After 15 months of fear, nervousness, caution, cohorts, masks, closed drinking fountains, online meetings, and daily health screenings, we’ve learned some things. 

Rigorous safety procedures have been a drag, but they have kept us safe.  Although sometimes it’s hard to get up in the morning, we now appreciate that we LOVE school.  We’d rather be at school than self-isolating at home.  We’d rather have face to face lessons than online meetings.  We rather have the freedom to choose where we go on the playground rather than be limited to one area.  We love to play with lots of people and have the freedom to make new friends during one recess and one lunch time. 

We can resume our more familiar school life as people get their vaccinations and the threat of COVID is reduced.  Next year everyone will be back at school full time and the things we like will be back in place.  I was delighted to be able to assign students to the four buses that will be transporting students from Livingstone to South Hill next year, with their siblings.  Good riddance to cohorts!

There are some take aways from COVID that are worth holding onto.  Daily health checks are a great idea and there will even be a website and APPS for the iPhone, iPad, and android devices to remind people who are sick to stay home.  Students and adults learned how to avoid touching our faces with germy hands.  We’ve learned to wash our hands thoroughly and often.  We had an obvious decrease in colds and the flu this year.  We also learned to be flexible and appreciate that we can do things differently and still have fun.  We learned that small kindnesses and gratitude make all the difference, particularly during times of stress.  We learned that everyone deals with stress in different ways and that we all must continue to develop our tools and strategies to manage.  We learned that giving the people credit for good intentions helps us to adopt another perspective.  We learned that learning outdoors is great if you are dressed appropriately, problematic if you are not.  

I am happy to say goodbye to 15 months of COVID, but I am not happy to be saying goodbye to you.  You are a great group of people who have shown resilience, kindness, flexibility, humour, and incredible learning in the midst of a global pandemic.  You rock.  I’ll miss you.  I’ll be back to visit.  I can’t wait to return to a seismically upgraded David Livingstone complete with an elevator and a ramp to the gym to welcome all students, staff, and families no matter how they travel.  Take good care, my friends 

Creating School Community in Time of COVID-19

Black Shirt Day

There has been a concerted effort in Canada to keep school open from Kindergarten to Grade 12 largely to address social-emotional needs for stability and predictability for students in their world. Other natural disasters have kept students from school with surprisingly little impact on their academic achievement. “When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated Louisiana in 2005, student achievement did not plummet” (1). “Researchers who followed elementary students displaced from schooling after the Enschede fireworks disaster in the Netherlands in 2000 reported that short-term achievement increased” (2). What has remained constant is the need for responsive parents stepping in to establish a caring context and a sense of normalcy.

Classroom teachers have welcomed students back to school during the pandemic and gone about integrating rigorous handwashing procedures, staying in cohorts, sanitizing equipment, creating a safe and secure classroom environment, and assigning weekly outdoor play zones.  Kids were delighted to return to school full time in September and are going about the business of learning.  I have dealt with fewer office referrals for poor choices than ever before in my career as a vice-principal, or principal.  Students have a common language around self-regulation and restorative practices which necessitate empathy.  Teachers have developed a strong sense of personal efficacy in their ability to keep their students safe and learning in their classrooms.

Creating community across groups presents a greater challenge.  Building community on staff usually involves eating lunch together, discussions at Staff Meetings, participation in professional development and chatting while waiting for the photocopier or signing in at the office each morning.  The landscape for creating and solidifying relationships has shifted significantly.  This has made the development of collective efficacy a big challenge.  Yet, Hattie’s finding that collective efficacy yields an impact size on student learning of 1.39 (3) makes it a goal worth aspiring to. 

Teachers experienced the first pivot to the virtual world when all classroom instruction went online after Spring Break in 2020.  Our connection point was the TEAMS Meeting.  There were varying degrees of understanding and use of this Office 365 Platform.  The platform had been set up by the previous principal.  Thanks, Mr. Peeters.  I had attended training with a team of teachers and set up the channels like chapters of a book, for ease of access.  There was a steep learning curve on how to host a meeting and required Microsoft changes to make this process more transparent, like it’s ZOOM competition.  However due to the integration of options to set up instruction for students online and create portfolios of work, the district decided that the Office 365 platform was closest to hitting the target of meeting our needs in the Vancouver School Board.

The weakness of early meetings was on me.  I had already mastered creating a PowerPoint to engage staff in discussion during staff meetings with stopping points for discussion.  When I created the PowerPoint slides to share on a screen with my staff, I lost the ability to keep my finger on the pulse of the room.    My years of training as a facilitator fell by the wayside, as I invited people to a meeting, talked through the PowerPoint presentation, then asked for questions, comments, and input to icons with video off and muted microphones.  Minimal response.  No interaction between staff.  No community building.  Really bad meetings. 

As my background knowledge has increased, the meetings have gotten better.  Information items on shared on the appropriate channel of The LivingstoneStaff TEAM.  At staff request, a weekly SWAAG (Staff Week At A Glance) was published on the weekend.  I started to plan staff meetings with greater opportunity for staff to talk to each other.  I put people into break out rooms during TEAMS meetings with a question for discussion.  I facilitated a course for administrators through the British Columbia Principals Vice Principals Association in early July 2020 via ZOOM.  We were magically put into rooms with our group of 6 people first thing in the morning, at the end of the day, and for discussion throughout the day.  By the end of the four-day course, we had established a sense of rapport and we easily engaged in discussion.  Retirements, shifts to other jobs in the district and leaves have resulted in a significant number of new staff.  I have been assigning staff to random groups to help them get to know each other.  It has also provided more focused discussion around school goals. 

I have also now learned to visit each room during breakout sessions.  I’m going to date myself now – I feel exactly like Jeannie, from the 70’s sit com, I Dream of Jeannie.  I have an impulse to cross my arms and nod my head while I appear in a room.  I was concerned that I would stifle conversation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case when I miraculously appear in the room.  I have felt in some sessions that participants assume performance mode when a facilitator enters the break-out room.  However, the conversation has fluidly carried on.  I believe it is because we have already established a rapport.  I also don’t stay long in each group.

The International Literacy Association has offered professional development online and there are a number of excellent sessions focused on asynchronous and synchronous learning.  They suggest that the break-out session should have a time limit of about 10 minutes with a specific response task.  I have tried the reporting back to the group from each group but I have not had favourable feedback about this process.  This week, I provided an Office 364 form to complete with feedback about future directions and requests for additional support.  Looking forward, I intend to make better use of tools such as Padlet.   I’m looking for other suggestions if you have any. 

Student community is usually developed through shared activities that bring students together for a common activity, crossing paths on the playground, and work with buddy classes.   The only face to face community building is during outdoor play where each cohort is assigned a time and a play zone.  Two recess times and two lunch times.  Again, the landscape for creating and solidifying relationships has shifted significantly.

My first effort to build student community online in March was met with marginal success.  I would video-tweet out a message to students from various places to connect with students via the Twitter feed on the school website.  I was given good marks for risk taking, but I was fairly wooden and never happy with the end product. 

In September, I requested that an All-Students TEAM be set up for communication with the entire student body and staff.  There is a channel for online performances and the capability for me to do online school assemblies.  Again, I have been given high marks for risk taking as the students have witnessed my learning curve.  I have done a particularly nice job of modeling resilience in the face of failure.  I am fortunate to have a BFF from high school who is a digital media specialist.  I’ve learned to follow his direction and to understand what I did wrong when I opt for a short cut.  Thanks, Armando!    

As a school principal, I cross all cohorts and wear a mask when I am outside of my office.  After a school wide assembly in fall, a number of primary students mentioned that they really liked seeing my whole face.  Apparently, my eyes tell that I’m smiling but it’s nice when my mouth does some of the work.  I decided that I needed to engage with the students in a way other than being out on the playground in mornings, after school, and at breaks. 

My new tech challenge was inspired by Sol Kay, a parent in my school community when I was principal at University Hill Elementary School.  She invited me to participate in a documentary she was doing on mindfulness and posted as part of her series on Instagram – InnerLight Journey by Sol.  Along with scaffolding from Sol, Steve Dotto @DottoTech, and the iMovie Made Easy course by Shelly Saves the Day on YouTube @shellysavesthe, I stuck my toe into the water.

In my capacity as president of the British Columbia Literacy Council of the International Literacy Association, I have been working on a project with our provincial council.  We have put out an invite for people to participate in creating an annotated bibliography of books to share with students to support social emotional learning by representing the diverse cultures within our B.C. schools, as well as providing stories or resilience, and social justice.  Our goal is not to create a strictly didactic list but recommend high quality literature which share authentic voices and stories to nurture empathy and understanding.  Special thanks to Mr. Muress, our librarian at Livingstone, for the many selections he has added to the list. 

I wanted to create a YouTube channel with me reading these highly recommended books to support the development of shared understandings at our school.  I chose to read picture books that were accessible to primary students to read, but also provided models for the writing of students in the intermediate grades.  With Armando on speed dial, my product is getting better.  I wasn’t certain it was reaching my intended audience or worth the time and effort I was putting into the project.  Then last week, I was teaching in a Grade 6/7 class when we were short a guest teacher.  One of the students in the class told me that his brother listens to me read every night when he is going to sleep.  The highlight of the month for me.  I’m inspired to carry on and improve.  The power of positive reinforcement. 

I have since learned that I need better sound for it to be projected to the class.  I now have the appropriate adapter and a microphone to improve the sound.  Armando has provided more scaffolding for me to master green screen.  Ms. Lirenman and her class are providing Keynote support.  Speakers who are part of the International Literacy Association speakers via ILA Next have also provided a number of follow-up ideas to develop reading and writing skills.

Shirt days have also been a positive way of facilitating group activity and stimulating conversation, largely about social justice issues that are so closely tied to social studies curriculum, and social emotional learning.  Terry Fox shirts came out en mass for the annual Terry Fox Run.  Our favourite Canadian hero had lots to teach us, even if we participated at different times of the day in cohorts.  On Orange Shirt day, students learned about residential schools, and the learning shared with us by our Indigenous people.  Black Shirt Day refocused our attention on the purpose and meaning of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms.  February 24th, Anti-Bullying Day is on the horizon.  Teachers, SSA’s, the supervision aids, the custodians, the Office Assistants, the Spare Time Coordinator, our Director of Instruction, and I will all be wearing the CKNW shirts with “Lift Each Other Up” for Pink Shirt Day and throughout the rest of the year.  Proceeds support local anti-bullying programs that teach empathy, compassion, and kindness.  We want kids to understand our shared role in supporting each other across cohorts and our collective responsibility.

Ms. Ferreira, our Kindergarten teacher, kicked off the first Wild Hair theme day.  It was followed up with Hockey Jersey day to celebrate the return of hockey to break the monotony of Netflix.  Mr. Bring, our Grade 7 teacher, is working with student leadership on other ways we can create school spirit. 

Student voice in our online school assemblies has been a great way to focus student attention.  Our Division 13 Kindergarten students and our Division 1 Grade 7’s have both done a great job at the Indigenous acknowledgment at the beginning of assemblies.  We have now scheduled regular, monthly assemblies, and plan to incorporate more student voice. 

We continue to look for ways to include parents more in our online school community.  PAC Meetings have all been online since March.  Access to the school has been limited.  Parents do have online access to the All-Students TEAM through their child.  This was most widely accessed during the Winter Show N’Share.  Some parents continue to enjoy the regular tweets about school activities and resources that are available to parents.  I am also trying to write more blog posts to provide parents with specifics around instruction and reporting.  My recent post, Reporting Student Achievement in British Columbia, provides parents with an overview of recent changes in reporting in British Columbia and what they can expect in the formal written reports being issued in January.  I’m looking for more ideas, if you have suggestions. 

Footnotes:

1 and 2 – “Lessons From Pandemic Teaching For Content Area Learning” in The Reading Teacher, November/December 2020, Volume 74, Number 3, page 341.

3 – Hattie, J. & Smith, R., (2021).  10 Mindframes for Leaders.  The Visible Learning Approach to School Success.  Corwin.  Thousand Oaks. 

The Moral Imperative

Contemplation

The notion of a moral imperative to guide action is not a new concept. For German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), human understanding of pure reason was the basis for a moral code defining subsequent action. Long before that, holy books from world religions were proposing a course of action focussed on the moral integrity of leaders who sacrificed for the betterment of others. Yet, the story of those consumed by greed and the quest for power is equally pervasive. John Dashwood’s promise to his dying father to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is quickly replaced by greed acceptable according to English law of the time. Mr. Potter in the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” released in 1946, demonstrates a more intense avarice and quest for power. Charles Dickens sent us all clear message on who we should be in his 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. Theodore “Dr. Seuss, Giesel gave us a reminder in the 1957 publication of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Ron Howard and Jim Carrey hammered the message home in the film version released in 2000. We know better but we’re not doing better.

Over the past week, we have watched in awe as political leaders have demonstrated a popular culture apparently bereft of morals and ethics. We sat riveted to the news and witnessed example after example of people spouting the rhetoric of a moral purpose who in fact were clinging to the relics of power and privilege. It brought me right back to the 1989 when I was riveted to the television watching Chinese tanks driving over pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Every social justice bone in my body believed that we were at a turning point. The Amnesty International quest to shine a light and expose injustice was playing out. We, as a collective society, would no longer be able to turn away and feign unawareness. Now people would be ready to start the work of creating a just society with a foundation of respect for human rights. I realized this was not the case when China did not even lose most favoured trading status with the United States. We are at another important point in our history. We are witnessing people ignoring COVID-19 rules designed to stop the spread of a global pandemic, perpetuating privilege, undermining the democratic process, ignoring legal obligations and fair process, and turning away from promises to family and friends. Are we looking at the fall of an empire, a failed experiment in democracy, or the possibility of reaching out to grasp the moral imperative required to create a socially just world?

I was privileged to be teaching in a Grade 6 classroom the day after U.S Congress was stormed and desecrated.  For the first hour of the day, the questions and perceptions of 11-year-old students directed the learning.  These kids wanted to talk about politics, democracy, communism, racism, anti-racism, slavery, the Civil War in the United States, Hitler’s legacy of neo-Nazis, Black Lives Matter, environmental practices, the oil and gas industry, the differences between the perception of guns in Canada and the United States, and the impact of Trump’s words.  Lots of big ideas.  When an idea began to resonate, a hand shot into the air or tentatively went up.  These kids represented what we need on a global scale.  A willingness to think.  A willingness to consider possibilities.  A willingness to think in terms of fairness and social justice.  For the kids in this room, there was no question that logical consequences are in order for poor choices.

A moral code has already been defined. Ethical requirements are articulated. Social justice has been defined and written down. The issue is how we as individuals live our lives that acknowledges a moral imperative. Individuals in leadership positions should be held to a higher standard. Trump has provided the most recent example of the power of words by a person in a leadership position to disenfranchise, to disrespect, to undermine, and to invoke violence and lawlessness of those with power, privilege and entitlement. However, it is not just people in leadership positions who are required to hold themselves to account.

As individuals, we need be hold ourselves to account for our behaviour and how we live or disregard our own moral code. I used to equate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs with the development of morals and ethics. My assumption was that self-actualization required moral and ethical development. It required attention only after basic requirements for food, safety, love and belonging, and esteem were in place. Now I think that the metaphor of weaving better describes our moral and ethical development. The warp threads are the foundational components of who we are, and the weft threads are the experiences. It is a particularly apt metaphor for me because I use to love to weave. I just wasn’t that good at it. I would pull the weft thread tighter and tighter. The result was a piece of weaving that got narrower and narrower until someone intervened to help me loosen the threads and allow the warp threads to assume their parallel structure. The quality of the fabric was a reflection of those stationary threads and the constantly moving thread. There are many examples of people who begin their lives with a strong sense of integrity that is eroded over time.

For those of you who spend a lot of time with children, you will have noticed the quest for fairness and logical consequences for poor choices. As a principal who spends a lot of time outside on the playground with kids, there is little reticence of even the youngest students to let me know who is not playing fair, who I need to talk to, who I need time-out, or whose parents I need to phone. In conversations with students about poor choices they have made, invariably the harshest consequences come from the students. The question “How do you think that made … feel?” frequently prompts tears. Empathy is alive and well on our elementary playgrounds. As is a willingness to accept responsibility for choices.

The ability to empathize seems to dissolve into the atmosphere along with curiosity as students move through the system.  For some of us, we may be our own best whipping posts, or have reflective practices built into our lives that keep us honest.  For others, there is a quest to step away from assuming responsibility for our own poor choices.  This seems to be most common when a polarized stance is adopted.  Us and them.  An unwillingness or inability to consider another stance or position or feelings. 

To keep ourselves open to learning, we need to value pluralism and the importance of diverse voices and perspectives. It is possible to have a strong identity with commonalities and still maintain different culture or values or beliefs. As a Canadian, I am lucky to live with people from many different places, spaces, and experiences. However, that privilege brings with it a responsibility to listen and learn from the experiences of other Canadians and question a system where some voices are amplified, and others are silenced. My study of history, political science, and my father taught me to articulate my ideas loud and proud. Time, my friends and family taught me that some of my earlier conclusions and strongly articulated ideas were just wrong. It happens. Ideas change if minds are open. If you are ever wondering if you are straying from your moral compass and acting with integrity, and don’t have someone who will tell you, find a kid in elementary school. They will have no difficulty putting you back on track. If we expect moral integrity from others, we need to live it ourselves.

Christmas Joy Trounces COVID Bah! Humbug!

Reading Corner Extraordinaire

“How 2020!” is the much uttered refrain these days.  It was the response when my oven door crumbled at my feet on Christmas Eve.  It was the response to the intrusion of all “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinners” (Dickens, p. 2) aspiring to snuff out carols calling for comfort and joy.  Yet in the face of an out and out battle with the global pandemic seemingly in the lead at times, Christmas Joy wins. 

My older sister has taken the hit for the family, in assuming the role of Florence Nightingale. There is no doubt that all health care workers deserve our utmost appreciation and praise during COVID. However I cannot imagine being a hospice nurse in Baytown, Texas. Hospice nurses at the best times warrant a special place in heaven. The patience and kindness of the nurses at St. Michael’s Hospice when my Mom was dying will remain with me always. However a whole new layer of responsibility is added by a global pandemic, on top of what is already a job that most of us couldn’t handle on the best of days. However, Debbie carries with her a sense of purpose and responsibility. And still sends me some of the best gifs of the day! Positively inspirational. I must admit though, I feel like I dodged a bullet when Santa gave the Nancy Nurse doll to Debbie, and the Baby First Step doll to me, on that Christmas of our formative years, long, long ago. Whew!

Another inspiration has been my lifelong friend, Alison. Both of us are lovers of Christmas and believers in spreading Christmas joy. I could only manage it on a very immediate level this year. In my immediate reach. Beyond that it has been a stretch. But Alison has held tight to her wings and the dream of Christmas jot, including the Christmas letter that reflects her love and pride in all of her family. And the gift that I never imagined I needed. Yet my crafty string of Christmas lights and lights to go in that special bottle of Lambrusco from my kids on Mother’s Day. Of course, it would make the perfect reading area! Who knew? Other than Alison. It gives me great faith in future possibilities. The pervasive image for this school principal at this point in time, is a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

What the COVID restrictions have done is slow down the pace of the holidays.  I will reach that goal of reading 100 books in 2020.  It is possible for me to sleep past 6 am.  I can find time to write everyday and exercise. There has been time to connect with friends, neighbours, and family members via phone calls, messenger, social media and en route.  From work.  From back in the burbs.  From university.  High school, And even elementary school.  To pause over losses of loved ones.  To celebrate happy memories we’ve been lucky to share. To do the present drop off.  To be there for people when it matters.  To connect in ways that in other times would have been unfathomable.  

The feeling of space and time also allows time for reflection and creativity to emerge. Like my colleagues, I started the holiday exhausted and in high gear at the same time. Yet with some down time, I am gobsmacked by the challenges thrown our way and our ability to support one another as we run the gauntlet of COVID-19. Colleagues have stepped up to support each other in a multitide of ways that will be remembered for a lifetime. My daughter and her partner are tucked away safely in Taiwan where they have COVID management under wraps. Our son is close by and his business continues to thrive despite COVID. Brad and I have rediscovered boardgames. Scrooge would be right in his assessment of COVID-19 as a Bah! Humbug! However, in the big picture, Christmas joy emerges victorious!

Shattering 2020

Everything bad in 2020 is directly attributed to COVID-19. Destructive forces conspire to make the year, the very worst it can possibly be. Unanticipated injustice is to be expected in 2020. And yet the response begins with shock and awe and plays out in a variety of very typical or perhaps universal responses.

The very best Christmas Eves of my life have included two things.  A heartfelt Christmas Eve Church service that crystallizes all of the very most important things in life.  And the Annual Diaz Christmas Eve Party complete with an abundance of love, joy, dancing, sangria and roast pork.  This year the only element within my control was the food, so I called my favourite Cuban chef, Armando Sr., for the trade secrets for the perfect roasted pork shoulder. 

My perfected sourdough bread was baked.  I grabbed the handle to open the oven and baste the pork.  The glass door of my very modern, high end oven crumbled around my feet.  Shock. Awe. Memories of the other shattering experiences in my life. 

My mother had finally saved enough money to replace her first car.  The white Maverick had served our family well.  She had learned to drive on it at 30.  She had taught my older sister and my cousin to drive on it, then averted an ulcer by sending me to driving school.  I had gotten to the point where the rattling from multiple areas of the car made it hard to hear the radio and certainly hard for me to exercise my personally perceived, cool persona.  The burgundy and white Sunbird changed all that.  Fresh off the lot, with the brand-new car smell and gleaming in the sun.  I convinced my mother that I was a very experienced driver – a year of driving under my belt in a mere two months!  Windows down.  Radio up.   I picked up Vikki.  Of course, we needed to cruise a little before we headed to the tennis courts.  We spotted our friend, Karen, and picked her up.  Vikki pulled the door closed and the back window shattered.  Completely gone.  Nothing to see.  When I finally got up the nerve to go home and tell my Mom, the response was not unanticipated.  TEARS.  Lots and lots of tears.

Fast forward many years to our house in the suburbs.  I wanted vertical blinds so I could hot tub in peace with my friends.  My very meticulous husband did what is common for me, but a rarity for him.  He dropped the screwdriver during the task.  It just nicked the bottom right corner of the sliding door but triggered a much bigger reaction.  I had time to call the kids to witness science in action, as the entire door shattered.  My husband was furious.

Christmas Eve 2020.  I’m not entirely certain what triggered the shattering of the oven door.  I’ve never heard or seen anything like it.  Did the screw in the handle come loose?  Did that happen when the door shattered, and I let it slam shut?  What is certain is there was shock.  There was awe.  Then there was uncontrollable laughter.  Of course, this would punctuate Christmas Eve and provide another illustration of how bad 2020 has really been.  My experience with shattering glass, parallels the universal experience with this pandemic.  Tears.  Anger.  Incredulousness.  And an overwhelming desire for the year to just end already! 

Terry Fox in Times of Covid-19

I paused when I considered the annual Terry Fox School Run this year. This surprised me. I have both a personal and professional connection to the run. I am old enough to have the memory of the kid dipping his toe in the Atlantic, starting on his lonely run, then capturing the imagination of a country. I no longer have enough fingers and toes to count the number of community and school runs that I have participated in. Terry Fox defined my identity as a Canadian. Yet, I faltered. My job as a school principal is to ensure safety.

Inspired by Terry Fox

I am a big fan of a party.  That is what Terry Fox Runs have become.  The crowds flocking to runs do not capitalize on the gut-wrenching sadness of cancer, they ride high on the belief that every person has the capacity to take risks and do great things.  They are fun.  We do make a difference. The Terry Fox Foundation has raised over $800 million dollars towards cancer research. There is a cure for the type of cancer that Terry had. The Terry Fox Run was my first of many 10 K runs.  Someone told me towards the end of the run that I had good form.  In every run since, when I’m sure I have to stop, I straighten up and am buoyed up to finish. 

I have well developed organizational skills and the desire to engage the whole school community during Annual Terry Fox School Runs.  Last year, the music was pumping, the kids were energized, the gigantic Terry Fox flag flying, and families and neighbours flocked to the school to cheer us on.  Kids were proud of the distance they ran and the money they were able to fundraise for cancer research.  Terry Fox inspired them.  COVID-19 caused me to balk.  How could this be done following the required COVID-19 guidelines? 

I am very grateful to my staff for providing the impetus for the run this year.  Matt Carruthers brought it up at a staff meeting and the date was set. He provided the schedule for running in learning groups/ cohorts, and the crew to distribute and collect cones.  Staff led the charge in their classrooms with lessons and inspiration about Terry Fox.   I set up the online donations site and sent the letter home explaining how the Terry Fox Run would look different at Livingstone Elementary in times of COVID.  My heart held more trepidation than enthusiasm. 

I started run day with a talk about Terry Fox.  My heart fills with pride when I talk about who we have self-selected as a Canadian hero.  Who had a more valid reason to feel sorry for himself and to feel really angry?  The kid had lost his leg to cancer.  Yet, that was not what defined him.  He set a goal to raise $1.00 from every Canadian to go towards cancer research.   Done by February 1st of 1981.  Yet that was not what defined him.  He is defined by perseverance.   He was not always the best at things that he loved, like basketball.  It didn’t stop him from loving the game and trying to improve.  He is defined by empathy and sympathy.  He experienced the ravages of cancer and its impact on other kids in the hospital with him.  He didn’t let adversity immobilize him.  He was able to think of how he could make the lives of other people better.  He was willing to do something really hard.  And in the process, he captured our imaginations and gave us hope.  He defined heroism in a very Canadian way.

On the Livingstone run day, the gigantic flag and the cones were in place. Most families respected my request to participate via our Twitter feed @LivingstoneVSB on the school website. The Spare Time Treehouse Preschoolers led off the run on the gravel field first thing in the morning. The final learning group / cohort was still running according to schedule at 2:30 pm. Ms. Janze’s class had inspirational chalk messages of encouragement on the sidewalk. Kids were laughing and having fun. They were setting personal goals of how many laps they would do. As we progressed through the day, the donations to the Livingstone School Run continued to roll in. At last check, we were at $2,814.95. Precious dollars we are able to contribute to cancer research when donations to charities are down due to the global pandemic.

In times of COVID-19, there are many disappointments and challenges to maintaining a positive outlook.  Terry Fox is perhaps our very best example in Canada, of how adversity does not have to conquer.  The #beliketerry and #tryliketerry capture how it is possible to move beyond sadness and anger to strengthen community and make a positive impact in a world that needs it.  And my heart soars 🙂

School Leadership In Times of COVID-19

“Dear Carrie…this rock reminds me of you. Beautiful, solid, sage and determined to retain its core – no matter the force.” #gratitude #inspiration Elena Photo of Hoodoos in Alberta, B.C.

I have a particular penchant for instructional leadership.   In my history as a teacher, the principals and vice-principals who fed my enthusiasm to learn and supported me in all kinds of wild and wonderful projects and inquiries, were the ones who empowered me.  I was encouraged to try, celebrate grand feats, and laugh about things that did not go exactly as planned.  I embraced leadership early in my career but resisted school administration for a long time because I loved teaching.  However, once I finished my secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, I had discovered the perhaps the joy of empowering adult learners in the education system. I can write a good grant and secure funds.  I can collaborate on an inquiry and ensure I can inform practice with current and inspirational educational research.  I can help find and support opportunities for my staff to pursue their passions.  I can build in structures of support and promote the work being done.  However in the midst of a global pandemic, everything else pales in comparison to the need for principals, vice-principals, and school staff to peel back to our core purpose – that is our ethic of care. As demonstrated by Nel Noddings (1929 – ), caring and relationship are the most fundamental aspects of education. It is just as relevant to our adult learners in the education system as it is to our students.

Supporting our school staff during a pandemic is fraught with challenges. How do we support teachers, in as Parker Palmer (1997) frames it, to maintain their “love of learners, learning, and the teaching life” in the face of so many demands, expectations, and concerns for their own families? Shared food via treat day and pot- luck lunches, gatherings, and staffroom meetings have been the language of appreciation, acknowledgment, and comraderie in school culture.    Online meetings are too often reminiscent of the Twilight Zone with the “Is anyone out there?” being met with incomprehensible silence.  Striving for bandwidth results in posted icons and silenced mics.    Tough crowd to read! Challenging environment to truly respond with an ethic of care.

I wrapped up my professional growth plan in July.  I was so disappointed with the cancellation of the trip to work on instructional leadership with colleagues in Nisga’a with Tara Zielinski from West Van, Kathleen Barter from North Van, and Elizabeth Bell from BCPVPA was cancelled. I continue to believe that instructional leadership needs to have a driving force in our education system to support our students developing a voice and the skills required in a changing world.  I continue to believe that collective efficacy is our best bet at facilitating meaningful change in our education system. For that reason I will continue in my work facilitating The Essentials for New School Leaders course continuing throughout the year and a VSB Inquiry group. But for now, the primary driving force in the education system must be focused on relational leadership.  At this time our success in mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with our students, parents, staff, and our community partners are the determinants of the strength of our school system to achieve it’s core purpose.

I believe there are some things we can do to make a difference and to make people feel cared for. I’ve got it down to five key things that are achievable.

1. Vigilant Health & Safety Practices

In June the district average of return to school was about 33%. Just over 50% of students returned to my school site.  I am the daughter of a retired neurosurgeon, so I have grown up with a “safety first” consciousness.  By the end of June, I realized that perhaps I had been a bit too rigorous in controlling numbers of students on the playground.  We have four very large play areas.  I could lighten up.  I have heard from staff that they need to feel safe. The established protocols are for them as much as students. My Operating engineers and custodial staff have been amazing in taking on the increased work load and working with me to ensure we are following the established healthy routines. I’ve heard from my parent community that they appreciated how seriously we are taking the COVID-19 preventative measures.  This September, about 90% of our students returned to school.  We have trust from our parent and student community. The parent community is being very respectful of requests to maintain 2 metres of physical distance from other people’s children so we can limit the contacts of our learning groups / cohorts during the beginning and end of the day.

2. the Spirit of Servant-Leadership

Nel Noddings frames “receptive attention” as an essential characteristic of a caring encounter. Shane Safir frames the conditions to adopt the stance of a “listening leader”. Margaret Wheatley points out that “(s)uccessful organizations, including the military, have learned that the higher the risk, the more necessary it is to engage everyone’s commitment and intelligence”. (The Spirit of Servant Leadership 2011, p. 172). All of them are getting at the importance of demonstrating care and finding out what people need. I have done a lot of listening. I have asked a lot of questions. I have heard that teachers need to feel safe at school. I have heard that too much information is provided, and too little information is provided. That the message needs to be consistent. That I am trusted to make the hard decisions and that is why I am the one getting paid the “big bucks”. That some people want to be fully involved in decision making. That some people are just so tired or worried. That some people are overwhelmed or frustrated. That some people need more tech, more resources, and … The big learning for me has been that I’m not going to be able to solve all of the problems, prevent messaging from changing, or make everything better. All I can do is listen, show that I care, and be responsive to achievable requests.

“We can’t restore sanity to the world, but we can remain sane and available. We can still aspire to be of service whenever need summons us. We can still focus our energy on working for good people and good causes.” Margaret Wheatley. Perseverence page 25

3. Effective Communication

The only constant in our schools right now is that things will change.  Another truth is that some people find the quantity of information daunting.  Some staff requested a Sunday Night Week at a Glance with key information. For others, they want access to the original document being cited and the references.  I have discovered some ways to provide information that I find helpful.

Email

Outlook – For incoming information to be shared, email makes it easy to forward information, particularly if a group send has been set up.  It is also the easiest way to track conversation threads. 

MyEdBC – this is the easiest way to contact families quickly and easily.  It also allows me to keep classroom teachers apprised of what is going out to parents. 

Office 365 Platform:

  • TEAMS

The Vancouver School Board has adopted this platform to communicate with staff and students.  My experience tells me the information is most accessible if the name of the TEAM channel is descriptive enough for staff to access what they are looking for.  Each channel allows you to pin up to three documents to the top of the FILES section within that channel for ease of access.  The Livingstone Staff Classroom also allows staff to access information from committee meetings and participate in decision making to the extent they desire.

The Vancouver School District has just created an “All Livingstone Student” Classroom (group of all students in the school).  My intended purpose was to provide an online Health & Safety Orientation to those students not yet attending.  However, it is turning out to be a great way to reach out to students in a way that emailed letters to students and video Tweets have not. 

There is also a TEAM for District initiatives, information, learning and meetings.

  • SWAY  

I love this format of presenting information because it allows you to share a great deal of information in a highly visual way.  In Spring, one Kindergarten teacher went on Maternity leave, another retired and the final teacher had not yet been hired.  It allowed me to provide a virtual tour to our new Kindergarten students.   It also allowed me to provide a Health & Safety Orientation that could be referenced by students and is now my standard newsletter format.

  • FORMS

Forms provides templates for you to secure information about opinions.  It has been used by the VSB to solicit parent information.  I also used it to secure intake information from our Kindergarten families and information from teachers about their thoughts and requests.  This method of getting feedback enabled me to involve staff in decision making when we shifted to an online platform in March. 

Livingstone Elementary School Website

Never has it been more important to have an up to date website.  I’ve gotten better at providing links to sources that regularly date their information like the Vancouver School Board.  The VSB has also gotten good at fanning out pertinent information directly to school websites. 

Twitter

I am still a big fan of Twitter both to share good news stories and interesting information.  It is linked directly on to our school website, so families do not need to have a Twitter account to access information.  The biggest challenge is making students aware of whether they have permission to have their picture on the school website.  Parents need to understand that they have every right to decide if they want to sign the school media release form or not.  They need encouragement to share their reasoning even with our youngest students.

PAC Facebook

I have not set up a school Facebook account.  However, the Livingstone PAC has set up a very active fb site.   Good communication with parents will help you to stay apprised of the issues and concerns of the school community, so you can attend to them directly.

4. Continue to tap into the Joy of Learning

The other day I got feedback from a parent that was unexpected but also very much appreciated.  She thanked me for not forgetting the fun.  She noticed the efforts to provide “friendly” reminders of two metres without making them scary – butterfly nets with ribbons, one pool noodles plus part of another pool noodle to make it exactly two metres, pinwheels with ribbon, and plastic parachute men from the dollar store.  She appreciated the four hours of taping by Mr. Froese to make perfect roadways in the hallways to direct students and the moose crossing signs to keep people on their route – all featured in the sway presentations.  She also noted the increased opportunities for outdoor learning and inquiry projects.

I have spoken before of how my daily quest for joy usually takes me to the playground.  I have assigned two school wide assignments via SWAY and on the ALL Livingstone Students TEAMS classroom.  Students can keep track in their student planner and they can form a springboard for future student learning. They have been great ways to stimulate the conversation and focus social-emotional learning, positive mental health and literacy development.

Gratitude Log – This assignment is to focus attention on the things that are good in the world.  It is an effort to have students slow down and pay attention to what is happening around them. 

Reading Log – I’m a big believer that if you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right author or the right book. It all begins with a conversation about what you’re reading. Reading relationships are instrumental in developing new perspectives and comprehension skills.

5. Take Care of Each Other:

Back when I was a Resource teacher at Maple Creek Middle School, one of my colleagues, Wayne Rogers, nicknamed me the Tazmanian Devil.  I have a long established history of walking quickly and getting things done.  It did not work for me on the wet hallway the other day.  I went down hard, jumped up in embarassment, and left school to nurse my twisted knee, strained ankle and possibly fractured scaphoid.  The physiotherapist ordered me home to apply heat and rest.  One of my teachers sent me a text ordering me to stop working.  Her assessment was that I work too hard, I needed to binge watch Netflix, eat buttered popcorn, and she followed up with a list of excellent binge-worthy possibilities.  Good advice.  Knee and ankle are fine.  Wrist braced.  Perhaps the biggest take away is we all need to take care of each other.

Ray Ferch, Shann, & Spears, Larry C. eds.(2011). The Spirit of Servant-Leadership. Paulist Press, New York.

Wheatley, Margaret (2010). Perseverence. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco.

I always love the conversations and written feedback that come out of these blog posts. Please respond with the things you are trying. I’m still looking for the magic bullet to make everything better 🙂

Seeking Out Joy

Bhangra Joy with Gurdeep Pandher

The first tweet @GurdeepPandher that I saw was from his little cabin in the Yukon.  His bhangra dancing with abandon filled my heart with joy.  For those of you that know me well, this will not surprise you.  Dancing with abandon always fills my heart with joy.  And so, I retweeted.  And I have continued to retweet as he has danced his way around Canada through the COVID-19 pandemic.  He’s danced in Nova Scotia, in Ottawa, with the Canadian Armed Forces, and to bagpipe music. The list goes on. And every time he dances, he makes me smile.

I am on the Board of Directors for Wild About Vancouver.  Gurdeep has inspired the dream of people dancing their favourite dances outdoors throughout the Lower Mainland of Vancouver and tweeting it out @WildAboutVan.   It would be brilliant.  I am also back at school as principal of David Livingstone Elementary School. He has inspired the notion of teaching kids dances that they can do outside at recess and lunch. Socially distanced joy. Not a bad plan!

I went to Gurdeep’s website and was able to purchase and download music for bhangra dancing and sign up for an online dance class.  AND I was able to do my first class this morning and talk to Gurdeep.  He is just as lovely in person (which means on ZOOM in the COVID-19 world) as he is in his tweets.  His direction:

Stand up straight and engage your core.

Shoulders back.

Chin up.

Express joy in your face, and happiness in your heart and soul, with a smile.

This is certainly one pathway to mental health and physical fitness. I certainly need more practice to coordinate moving my arms and legs in sync with the hops but then … joy on the playground and around the Lower Mainland. Thanks, Gurdeep!

Check out his site ( gurdeep.ca) and join the celebration and opportunity to, as Gurdeep puts it – “Have some fun in the chaos.”

The COVID-19 Office

The Human Rights Work Continues

One positive change that could emerge from the COVID-19 global pandemic is the change in how  we do our work.  People working at home have been exposed to a whole new reality. To work, it is not necessary to be sitting in front of a computer 24/7.  Flexibility in work schedules is allowing people to schedule their days to attend to physical and mental health, as well as get the work done. 

On the common deck of my condo in Kits, my neighbour has run a power cord from the hall and set up the laptop screen to increase visibility of the screen.  He asks if I’m okay with his choice of music.  He is studying to be a pilot.  Sometimes I find him on the deck working as a personal trainer with one of his clients.  He has taught me that to explore angles on the laptop screen and shade it with a shirt to create a visor in order to increase screen visibility.  When I tilt back my reclining chair back, I can see the screen as well as the ocean and the mountains.

Down at Jericho Beach, I watch as the young women beside me tentatively step into the ocean and quickly decide it is just too chilly today.  The phone rings, and one of the young women shifts gears.  She effectively negotiates her business call and makes the commitment to draw up a proposal and have it to her client tomorrow.  As she chats, her friend takes out her computer and gets some work done.  There are no hurt feelings or resentment for not giving her friend her undivided attention.  The social contract allows and expects these disruptions.

I frequently give my son a hard time for not giving his father and I his undivided attention when he comes for dinner or for a bike ride.  And yet, at the same time I’m incredibly proud at how well he is doing with his business.  Clients around the world are paying the bills, manufacturing product or ready to work collaboratively.  Communication cannot be limited to a 9-5 context if you are being responsive to needs.  The phone rings or the text comes through and my son  seamlessly slides into business mode, negotiates the call and rejoins us.  

My cousin has an office job.  Working at home started when COVID-19 hit Vancouver in Spring.  It has just been extended until January.  She has adjusted to the reality that some days includes far more work that other.  She always meets the expectations of what needs to be done in a day.  For the employer, no work space, office furniture, phones, supplies or daily cleaning are required.   The employer has got to have noted the obvious benefits of reduced costs. 

In British Columbia, schools were closed after Spring Break to everyone but principals, vice principals, operating engineers and trades people.  I went into my office first thing in the morning, stood at my desk for hours on end, absorbing all of the new information possible, attending online meetings, planning and problem solving.  I turned my head to pick up the phone and left my office to attend to very specific tasks.  The intense stress exacerbated the muscle strain.  Two things happened to change things up for me.  Nearly all meetings were online so there was less need to dress in my regular work attire.  We were also given direction to leave the school by 3:30 pm to allow the deep cleaning of the school.  This allowed me to ride my bike to school and get some exercise, and some perspective as I rode home along the seawall.  Some phone calls I navigated en-route, and people got use to some huffing and puffing when I reached hills.  Sometimes I just stopped to focus on the situation.  I also stopped to do video-tweets for the students at my school.  It was a refreshing and much needed break.  I was still available for work.

Initially I thought perhaps Millennials were just better at pivoting during this new  reality than Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers.  And yet Alex Neve,  Canadian Human Rights Activist and Secretary General of Amnesty International, popped up on Facebook with his office set-up in the forest.  It seems to be that people with their own businesses or more job autonomy have been the blade runners in defining these new realities.   Granted some jobs lend themselves to more flexibility.  When schools opened on a voluntary and part time basis in British Columbia in June, educators certainly needed to be onsite more frequently.  However in July when I was facilitating a course for BCPVPA, I transitioned to a work space in my dining room.   Now I have expanded my options.  The side deck or front deck in the shade with the birds, or the common deck with the mountains, ocean and sunshine are working just fine.  This could be the upside of COVID-19 

The Best or Worst Versions of Ourselves?

With the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are witnessing extreme versions of people. Some people take Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice to “Be Kind” to heart. We see examples of people choosing to be the best version of themselves and acting with generosity and kindness. Then there are the other people who unleash a nastiness and vitriol that we only saw hints of in past interactions. The ongoing conversation has become, do difficult times reveal the actual predisposition of a person or does it reveal of lack of coping skills?

What do people see when they look at you?

Since the beginning of civilization, there are examples of people who seek out those opportunities to dominate others.  The motivations have ranged from selfishness, jealousy, insecurity, entitlement, sadism or fear of losing power.   We have historical relics such as the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, concentration camps and the documentation of slavery, as glaring examples of this.  With COVID-19, there are increased reports of family breakdown, abuse, separation, divorce, racism, and volatility in the community.   Last week, a Kitsilano resident assumed the responsibility for aggressively questioning people on the beach, where they were from and ordering them home to their own neighbourhood.  There is no shortage of examples of outrageous, opportunistic, and perhaps Machiavellian behaviour to warrant responses of anger, depression and dismay. 

Yet, the friendliness and kindness is palpable on a daily basis.  There are so many examples of generosity and kindness in person and online that have the capacity to fill our heart with gratitude.  The smiles, the friendly conversation, inspirational stories, and the commiserating over lines at stores are daily occurrences.  The 7 o’clock salute to thank health care workers has expanded from pots and pans to include percussion instruments, car and boat horns, sirens, and in some cases full bands.  In their lives, did these people receive good character education with an emphasis on moral justice, integrity, and kindness from friends, families, or teachers? 

In my heart of heart, I don’t believe in truly bad people who go out into the world with a mission to make other people miserable.  And yes, good people have bad days.  However, all of us are called on to make choices and are responsible for those choices.  The COVID-19 global pandemic will be one of those times when the measuring stick comes out to judge where we were as a civilization in 2020.  History will hold out the examples of the human capacity for greatness, or like Margaret Wheatley points out, the very clear indicators of the fall of yet another civilization.  We will be held responsible for how we raised up the voices of those in need of help and encouragement, and how we responded on a societal or individual level.