Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some Timely Advice for Parents

Every teacher has had experience with students who refuse to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, often aided and abetted by their parents who are quite happy to blame everything and everyone but their kids. An interesting article in today's
Globe and Mail
addresses the problem with some simple advice that, if followed by parents, might make our jobs easier. Check it out if you get the chance.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Less Homework More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress

There is an interesting article in today's
New York Times
about a young principal at an affluent school in the Boston suburbs. His contention is that students are facing extraordinary degrees of stress as they vie for entrance to the best universities, and he has plans to reduce that stress. What gives his position a measure of credibility for me is the fact that he has been decried by Rush Limbaugh. He must be doing something right if the extreme right takes issue. Check out the article if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Magic as a Motivational Tool

Although I don't think this has been tried in North America, South Africa seems to be having some success in using stage magic as a tool to instill confidence and entrepreneurship in students. For the full story, please check out today's
Globe and Mail.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

7500 Ontario Students Get Lesson In Activisim

There is a story in today's Globe and Mail that reminds all of us, whether practicing or retired teachers, why we got into the profession. Since it is such a refreshing antidote to our inevitable cynicism, I am taking the liberty of reproducing it below:


7,500 Ontario students get lesson in activism

October 20, 2007

More than 7,500 Ontario students raged with enthusiasm yesterday at the Toronto edition of a national crusade meant to encourage young people to take on causes of political and social responsibility.

The National Me To We Day gathering at the Ricoh Coliseum was organized by Free the Children, the organization founded by activist Craig Kielburger in 1995 when he was 12 years old.

"Most adults think that at some point, youth in general don't have enough interest," said Danny Nguyen, 17, who's started a Free the Children chapter at William Lyon Mackenzie in North York to raise money to build a school in Sierra Leone. "These movements and enthusiasm show we do have the initiative."

The event's goal was to encourage youth to take on leadership roles in their communities and abroad to work against poverty, stand up for human rights and work toward a more peaceful world.

The day-long event featured motivational speakers and musical guests, with host Ben Mulroney.

Students heard the story of 19-year-old Michel Chikwanine's childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rebel forces lined up the children in his village, blindfolded them, slit their wrists, drugged them and then pitted them against one another. Mr. Chikwanine was five years old when he killed his best friend.

Romeo Dallaire urged the audience to hold leaders accountable for change, question the status quo and demand human equality.

"We are all human and everyone of us counts just as much as the other," Mr. Dallaire said.

Students gave standing ovations for each speaker, waved illuminated cellphones during Canadian Idol winner Brian Melo's performance and were buzzing with ideas during their short lunch break.

"It makes me realize how privileged we are to live in this country, and that it should be like this for everyone," said Katie Pacheco, 15, who came from Lakeshore Collegiate in Etobicoke.

"I want to help people in poverty and children [from] being raped and tortured," said Grade 7 student Claudia Luszczynski, who hopes to organize clothing donations to raise money with her class.

Christine Oliver, 16, who attends Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School, is working to organize social events, fashion shows and clothing drives to show Toronto that the youth in her Malvern community have a lot of positive change to make.
"People focus on the negative and don't want to highlight the positive," Ms. Oliver said. "We want to give Malvern a better rep."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Parents Often Aren’t the Only Ones Kept in the Dark

There is an interesting story in today’s
Globe and Mail
about a gun incident. Apparently last Friday a student brought a 9 mm gun, with ammunition, to Johnson Heights Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. Warned by a former student that there could be trouble, a school official intercepted the student, took him to the office where a search uncovered his weapon. The police were then called. Parents are upset that a letter wasn’t sent home until the following Wednesday after a media report about the incident on Tuesday. While the school dealt effectively with the gun threat, I can’t help but think that there were some very definite reasons for the delay in communication with the parents.

Over the past several years, schools, and the administrators who run them, have become increasingly political in their concern about the ‘optics’ of situations. In all likelihood, there were meetings at high board levels concerning how best to convey this information to the public, all in the quest to convince everyone that the school is safe. This is one of the reasons that many boards have corporate communications officers. What people might find surprising is that this kind of embargo on timely information often extends to the teaching staff itself. I remember a few years back, the staff's help was enlisted to identify the handwriting of a note that contained both a bomb threat and a threat against the school’s principal. With staff assistance, the culprit was apprehended, but at the following staff meeting, we were not allowed to know anything about the perpetrator. We did not want to know his name, only what measures had been taken after he had been caught, but the principal told us that due to ‘privacy concerns,’ he couldn’t tell us anything.

Not to be trusted with information essential to the safety of the school is not only dangerous, but it is also very demoralizing, reminding teachers once again that in the great scheme of things educational, we occupy a very lowly position.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Two Book Reviews

I've added two book reviews to my review blog. One is on the book Boomsday by Christopher Buckley, and the other is The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. If you are a fiction reader, feel free to check them out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Facts and Arguments

In today's Facts and Arguments section of the Globe and Mail, there is an interesting article by Calvin White, a guidance counselor in British Columbia. He writes about the need to teach students to think critically and thereby help them to become more involved in the concerns of the 'real world,' something I have written about
. While I don't really entirely agree with his placing much of the blame on teachers, as opposed to the system itself, it certainly makes for some thought-provoking reading.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Servant Leadership

Imagine working in a school where the administration puts the needs of the organization before his or her own needs. Imagine an environment where that administration, instead of merely paying lip service to educational principle, casts aside politics, ego, ambition, and resume building, chooses to vigorously pursue excellence. This is not a utopia I am asking you to envisage. It is the world of servant leadership.

I first encountered the concept last spring while doing research for an educational project. Since there is an abundance of good and comprehensive information available on the Internet, I won’t go into a detailed explanation of it other than to say that the underlying philosophy involves managers (administrators) recognizing their staffs as the most important element in achieving the goals of the organization (effectively educating students), and do everything in their power to help the staff achieve those goals. While some object to this management approach as being little more than a form of condescension, as opposed to, for example, making the staff partners in the operation of the organization (which, in my experience usually is little more than an exercise in rhetoric), I can’t help but think that its true practice would have a revolutionary impact on staff morale and hence staff effectiveness.

As many teachers will know, the standard style of management is hierarchical, with a vast distance separating the leaders from the led. The greatest difficulty with this form is that it often involves an either conscious or unconscious condescension on the part of management. By virtue of their position, they frequently adopt propriety language betraying their true feelings about those who work ‘beneath’ them. How often have I cringed to hear those in positions of authority talk about ‘my staff’ or ‘my teachers!’ Such language and biases do nothing to foster the kind of true collaboration needed to succeed in education today.

However, one of the major impediments to servant leadership is that its success is almost entirely dependent upon the personality of the administrator. A questionnaire found on one website
underscores the difficulties of finding a true servant leader:

Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice
your own self-interest for the good of the group?

Do people believe that you want to hear their ideas and
will value them?

Do people believe that you will understand what is
happening in their lives and how it affects them?

Do people come to you when the chips are down or
when something traumatic has happened in their lives?

Do others believe that you have a strong awareness for
what is going on?

Do others follow your requests because they want to
as opposed to because they “have to”?

Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the
organization when you are around?

Do others have confidence in your ability to anticipate
the future and its consequences?

Do others believe you are preparing the organization to
make a positive difference in the world?

Do people believe that you are committed to helping
them develop and grow?

Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization
that you lead?

I strongly believe that there is much merit in adopting a new management model. But until school boards are willing to adopt fresh criteria in their selection processes, including psychological testing of perspective administrators, servant leadership is likely to remain a rarity in public education.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Profit Before Student Health

There was an interesting story in yesterday’s Globe and Mail entitled ‘School food policies get low marks.’ It asserts that governments have failed Canadian students by permitting the sale of very unhealthy food in schools. While some provinces fared better than others, a report card released by The Centre for Science in the Public Interest gave an F to three: Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. No province received an A.

This story got me thinking about the last school I taught at, and the unpleasant consequences of a little activism for better nutrition within that school. It all started one lunch hour when, emerging from the staffroom, I saw something that even
my cynical eyes found hard to accept: a candy dispensing machine was being installed right beside my room! Assuming this was the result of miscommunication, I called the office to express my incredulity, only to be told by the Vice-Principal that it was being installed under the Principal’s authority. Several of my colleagues spoke to him about the inappropriateness of this location, to no avail.

There was something deeply disconcerting about entering the school at 8:00 a.m. to find students feeding the machine their money in order to secure a candy bar in place of a decent breakfast. Equally disturbing were the compromises the machine’s presence forced me to adopt, such as having to close my door at about 9:30 every morning rather than allow my class to become distracted by the cafeteria lady emptying the last previous day’s profits from the machine. I was told this was the only time the task could be performed, as the lady only worked at the school four hours per day. This cacophonous clash of commerce competing with the art of English instruction was, I felt, richly symbolic of the many philistine priorities that seem endemic to education today, and certainly made a mockery of education officials’ public expressions of concern for student health and well-being.

Because it was right beside my room, I eventually decided to take matters into my own hands. I began printing up posters warning of the rising risks of diabetes amongst young people, the relationship between junk food and heart disease, the epidemic of teen obesity, etc. Ultimately, my efforts were rewarded with discipline which took the form of a “written verbal reprimand” (something of an oxymoron, I always thought) which I successfully grieved. After about seven months, the machine was relocated to the school foyer, to join the Pepsi dispensing machines. Now students could get both their caffeine and sugar fixes in one convenient location.

One thing that the public probably doesn’t understand is what a moneymaker the sale of junk food is for schools. For every greasy, cholesterol-laden hamburger, fat-drenched batch of french-fries or poutine sold, for every candy bar dispensed, there is a kickback to the school. The exact amount of the kickback in my school was a closely-guarded secret, something even the Federation could not ascertain. When I made inquiries of the cafeteria management as to why healthy snacks could not be placed in the vending machines, I was told that had been tried but there was little money to be made due to poor sales. While it may be true that the money from such operations is needed to supplement the government grants for education, surely endangering the health of our students is too high a price to pay, and unquestionably makes education decision-makers complicit in their physical decline.

This has to change.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Battlestar Galactica and Education

I’ve been getting caught up in the viewing of a show I recently discovered called Battlestar Galactica, not the cheesy 1970’s version, but the new one starring Edward James Olmos. As with all good science fiction, this series is uncompromising in the moral questions it poses and societal situations it explores. The one I watched last night, called “Dirty Hands,” reminded me a great deal of what the working situation was at the time of my retirement.

In “Dirty Hands,” the workers responsible for processing the fuel essential for the fleet to be ready to escape from their enemy, the Cylons, should another attack come, are becoming increasingly restive due to the fact that they are working 7 days a week, have been for months, with no relief in sight. Those in power utter the usual platitudes about the important work that the fuel processors do, etc., but ultimately a general strike is called, which is looked upon as an act of treason by those in command. Eventually, however, the strike leader is able to get a meeting with the President and convince her that their society is rapidly devolving into a slave-owner dichotomy, and that career opportunities are determined essentially by what planetary colony people are originally from. He persuades her that it is time to extend job opportunities and also for the leaders to begin doing some of the less desirable jobs or, in other words, ‘get their hands dirty.’

So what does this fine episode have to do with teaching? If it isn’t obvious, in so many jurisdictions our profession has become polarized; teachers and administrators occupy, to borrow a famous Canadian expression describing the distinctness and separateness of the English and French cultures, “two solitudes.” To be sure, all the right things are said by the leaders; they talk about the important work their teachers do, and how they appreciate their efforts, etc. etc. ad nauseam. However, in far too many situations, once that shallow rhetoric is ripped way, it is obvious at both the school and the board or district level that those words are mere political expedients meaning absolutely nothing.

To demonstrate from my own experience, near the end of my career I wrote a letter to the Director complaining about certain things. To my surprise, he invited me to meet with him. He proved to be a very attentive listener, took copious notes on the suggestions I made for reversing the deteriorating staff morale, said he would take my suggestions to Human Resources, and then, the predictable happened --- absolutely NOTHING.

I often think that because so many of them have become such creatures of politics, administrators and principals forget that teachers are experts at detecting insincerity. As I’m sure many know, it doesn’t take too long to demoralize staff if a principal seeks advice and input from a committee, and then simply ignores that advice because it doesn’t fit with his or her preconceived notions. It is far better not to pretend you value staff input than to insult teachers in such a manner.

As for “getting their hands dirty,” how often have we ever seen a principal or vice-principal take an on-call for an absent teacher? Of course, they would argue that they have much more important things to do in running the school, but what could be more important than showing some leadership and experiencing what the “troops” experience?
Or for that matter, how often do you see your administrators in the halls amongst the students? If you have such people in your school, consider yourself very lucky. My experience was frequently that they were often not even in the school, instead attending meetings at the board office, no doubt ‘seeing the bigger picture’ which for many meant promotions in the not too distant future.

Later this week I would like to look at the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ something that I think could be a very positive development in many of our schools.