Monday, 23 December 2013

Crticial Conversations Make My Heart Pound #SAVMP

You know that feeling - your heart begins to pound, your hands get sweaty, you go over what you should say a million times.  Sometimes I dream about how the conversation will go down.  I will say all the right things and then all will be well...

Yah, right.  It doesn't always go down that way.  As an administrator and now as a supervisor, I still find this to be an area of growth.  It isn't that I am afraid of confrontation, but I just want everyone to do their job and to love all kids.  I know this isn't realistic but it is my wish.

It is true that I will dream the conversation the night before.  I have been know to write down what points I should say.  We are also fortunate in our district to have a consultant that will help us script a critical conversation so as not to mess up in terms of the ATA or the CUPE union.

Todd Whitaker's book, "What Great Teachers Do Differently" offered me an excellent understanding of what should be happening in the classroom and when things were not going well, I had a standard to share with the teacher.  However, I realized early in my admin career that I could not have these conversations without building a relationship with the teachers.  I needed to demonstrate my own integrity before I could even approach a teacher about classroom issues.  Unless something totally immoral was happening in my first year, I knew I needed to wait until I had built that relationship to a point where I could have a critical conversation.

I also realized that it was important to have a common language and culture in the school.  We worked to learn about being a professional learning community with a Leader in Me approach so we could have a common language with students and staff. At that point, we had a common standard as to how we would approach teaching and learning with a greater focus on how the student would learn.  This became the standard that I could base any necessary critical conversations.

Having these key factors in place, gave me greater confidence to have critical conversations when I needed to with either staff, parents or even students.

Now I am called upon to have critical conversations with folks I don't know as well.  Just the other day, I had to discuss adult behaviour with an educational assistant.  This was difficult in terms of me not really knowing her well and I would expect she might be annoyed at this top down direction.  I recognize the need for me to get to know the educational assistants in my schools as I am considered their direct supervisor.  I find it more difficult to do this than I did in my school.  I can't be in every school every day and I am pulled in many more directions, but even remembering a person's name or things about their families will help me build that relationship to a better point for the future.

It is definitely easier to build relationships with my team but I am still hesitant to venture into that land of critical conversations and the old heart pounding and sweaty hands have returned when I have to question what is being done or not being done. I am also expected to build relationships with administrators in the schools in my area.  While I have the background of being an administrator and understanding their point of view, this gives me a slight advantage when I need to talk about inclusive practices with them.  However, I don't know all the administrators and they don't know me.  Until I build that relationship, I am just a voice going Wah Wah Wah.

The confidence will come and it has always a part of my growth plan.  Will I get to the point of complete confidence?  I hope so . . .  As I grow into this new leadership position, I will learn the way to lead these conversations to ensure student success in inclusive classrooms as well as the segregated classrooms I work in. I expect I will get to the point of being able to have critical conversations with other administrators when it comes to inclusion and inclusive practices.

How to Include Parents #SAVMP

From the Master Teacher

In my new position, there are fewer opportunities to include parents.  Typically, our consultants meet parents to debrief any assessments.  That is what I will focus on in this post.  In some schools, this step is not thought of as important but we work to let schools know it is so important for parents to understand the assessments the school has requested.  Rather than using this as purely information for coding and funding, this information can help parents understand what kind of learner their child is.

I found an interesting blog post around assessment and how it can be used to change our teaching practice. It is so important for teachers to be in the debrief with the parents.  This gives the opportunity for parents and teachers to become partners in the education of the student who is struggling.  When they both hear the information regarding strengths and challenges for the student, they can begin the process of using those strengths and working on the challenges.

If parents are included with the teachers, what a powerful team we have created. Together with the knowledge from the consultant and then acting on the suggestions by this expert will result in success for the student.  However, this will only happen if the parents and teachers are on the same page.  Just as we hope parents will be part of the learning team for the student who is experiencing success, this team is even more important for the student who is struggling.

Often in the case of a struggling student, the parents become frustrated if nothing is happening in the classroom or they perceive nothing is happening because no communication is occurring with the classroom. This leads to frustrations and then no collaboration will occur.  It becomes a "them" and "us" situation where
no one wins - especially the student.

But if parents are considered part of the team, treated with the respect we give to other team members, and communicated with regularly, particularly in the case of the student with special needs included in the regular classroom, success is bound to happen for the student!

We continue to coach schools to make sure parents and teachers (and students when they are old enough to understand) are debriefed regarding the results.  This is an important piece of the assessment process.

Literacy for All Means ALL?

Did I mention I love my job?  This past month has been a flurry of activity in many schools but one school stands out for me...
In our district we have schools called Individual Support Programs.  This program is described as a class where students will "build functional and communication skills that enhance the quality of life."  As well, it is stated that "all Edmonton Public Schools programming is based on curriculum determined by Alberta Education. Students enrolled in Individual Support will receive the same high-quality education offered in all of our programs."  This sounds so promising and hopeful.  Who wouldn't want their child with complex needs to be in a small class where such learning will take place?

Fast forward to reality...

In one classroom, the teacher worked to create "story boxes".  While these were designed according the website for students with visual impairments, they are brilliant for students with severe learning issues.  This teacher has created stories that are meaningful to the students with inserted experiences that included music, singing, actual objects to touch, see and smell.  In my observation, the students LOVED these.  ALL of them responded in some way and every student had an opportunity to take part.  The morning included three groups doing three different activities: gym, concepts (colors, letters, IPad activities - depending on the level and abilities of the group) and story boxes.  Because the story boxes were based on curriculum, the teacher could report to parents in a report card each term.  How exciting for parents to have their children take part in a regular rite of passage for every student.  This teacher used a resource called Tasks Galore to help shape her concepts time and her story boxes.  It was evident these students came to school to learn and not just sit.  Loved this class.

Now on to the others. These classrooms (and I am only speaking about two of the three classrooms I have visited thus far at the junior/senior high level) have little in terms of building communication skills.  There is NO planning of curriculum based on the Program of Studies.  Sure, there are "activities" and some may include math for some students... These rooms are glorified and very expensive baby sitting services.  A focus on compliance and being quiet equated to being good.  Lots of crafts being down by the grownups while the students sit quietly (that is the expectation of a "good" student).  Beautiful Christmas ornaments were made last week by two educational assistants while the students watched or didn't watch...

I am not sure what happened to these classrooms.  In one class the teacher said she was tired and had no ideas left.  In the other class, the very young teacher was doing the best possible with no training in this area. This was frustrating for me to see. My heart is hurting to see these students just sitting all day in their silence with no real stimulation.  How is that quality of life? 


My team was eager to make changes and in the one class, the teachers agreed to meet monthly so we could help with programming.  We began by completing a file review on each student to learn about past practices in terms of communication - what worked best and what assistive tech had been used in the past.  We learned about medical conditions that may be barriers and then we discussed what steps needed to be taken next for each student to overcome these barriers.  We listed questions we had for the team for each student. We learned A LOT!  And then we shared our learning with the staff.  They had never done this and were very appreciative of this action.  

Our next step is for the class to list all assistive technology they have in the classroom so our speech pathologist and occupational therapist will know what is available.
Then we asked for their daily schedule so we could plan the learning within their schedule so it wouldn't feel like they were doing more or extra.
Finally, we shared curriculum that would match parts of the program of studies and that had been piloted successfully by Alberta Education in the past two years using the Meville to Weville packaged curriculum.  Although the focus for the pilot was on elementary students, the actual curriculum can be used from k-12.  The teachers in the first class were appreciative of a curriculum to follow.  And we were excited to share.

Our next steps will be to meet with the teacher to help design the lessons to come to include all of the students and to insure the students ARE LEARNING and to meet these objectives as outlined on our website:
  • Structured learning environment with regular routines and close supervision
  • Physical accommodations such as wheelchair access, specialized furniture and assistive technology
  • Smaller classes for more targeted instruction
  • Community service providers offer additional services for students as needed
  • Opportunities to participate in school-wide and recreational activities
While we are excited about this move toward transformation, we still need to complete this same exercise for the other class.

This is a class that historically we have not been invited in.  Not sure why?  Anyway, I visited last week and offered the teacher the same services that we undertook in the other class. She was receptive and now I wait to see if the administration is also receptive.  Haven't heard back yet.  

These students are our most vulnerable. They can't speak up to tell us they are bored, they want more, they are unhappy.  We usually see this in terms of behaviour - behaviour that is punished by the adults in the room.  I can't imagine how frustrated I would be if I had to sit day after day and watch people do the things I wish I could do but couldn't tell anybody what I wanted.  I am grateful my team feels the same way and wants more for these students; wants to improve their quality of life. We have to presume competence in our students and as Doug Biklen stated, "Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators. "  We MUST presume all of our students are competent and then move forward with them in their learning. Dr. Caroline Musselwhite shares several videos about good literacy instruction for all here. Great stuff to get you thinking and get started.  

I am excited also that Karen Erickson (one of the authors of the Meville to Weville curriculum) will be in Edmonton.  I have invited all principals and teachers to take part in this valuable professional learning. Another great tool for improving learning that I found is this great wiki including ideas and success stories.  

Finally, we have invited all staff to a regular monthly cohort to learn and share ideas.  All teachers expressed interest.  It is my hope the elementary teachers will come as well because their programs are full of learning and hope for these students.  I pray their enthusiasm will rub off on the teachers from the junior/senior high programs.  We will likely start in February and I am excited that great things will happen for these students; that excellent programming will occur in these classrooms; that we will improve their quality of life through literacy and communication instruction.

A big job? Yup, but I am energized to serve these students and their teachers.  I know that through regular collaboration we will see transformation in the classrooms.  Slow but steady change for students and staff alike.

Have you got any ideas for me as we move forward?  Love to hear them...

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Instructional Leadership #SAVMP

In this post we were asked to share how we build credibility so we can be strong instructional leaders. I thought about this and I have to answer in two ways: first as principal and then as supervisor (my new position).

As principal, in order for my teachers to really believe that I could offer them suggestions, I made a point of being in the class, working along side them whenever I could.  I have been their supply teacher often, I modeled what I suggested so teachers could see the suggestion in action, and I worked with the students included in their classrooms (with the ed assistant or as the supply ed assistant if needed).  If something needed to be done to support teachers, I did not hesitate to roll up my sleeves and get it done.  Teachers knew they could trust me to support them in every way.  So when we came to the point where we needed to change to move forward, the relationships were built and we could move forward.  The trust was evident and we could make the changes needed to ensure learning for all students.  

Now as a supervisor, it is up to me to build those relationships again with my new team.  I need to get to know my team and they need to get to know me so they can trust me in all things.  I need to earn their trust and respect.  I make sure I am trustworthy and what I say, I will do.  

In the short time I have worked with my team, we have worked closely together and have had many discussions around students, each sharing our expertise.  I have taken the time to go along with staff on student observations, we have talked about how they deal with workload and how I can make their work easier, and we have had many, many discussions about process as I learn so many new things.

Collaboration has become key in all we do and I think through this wonderful collaboration we will move the cause of inclusion further in our schools.  At the beginning of the year, we revisited the mission and vision statement of our board to see how our work aligns.  It was a good exercise to remind us about why we do the work we do.  We discussed our priorities for the year and how we would work to meet the needs of our students.  This set the tone for the year to be open and collaborative and on the same journey.  

I work with AMAZING people who have inclusion at the forefront of their work.  They want to see students successful in their community schools.  They are willing to work with staff to make sure this happens.  They are passionate and they love kids!  I am so lucky to have such a great team! 

SETT for Action

Last week we completed a SETT framework for a grade 9 student with complex needs. It was a great experience for all involved and will move the student forward.  This is how it went. . .

We started the meeting with our Inclusive Learning Team (including the speech pathologist, occupational therapist, psychologist, educational/behavior specialist, assistive technology specialist, physiotherapist and me), the father of the student, the principal of the school, the educational assistant and the student.  Unfortunately none of his teachers attended.

To begin, I gave each participant a copy of the student's main communication board and instructed all participants that they could not talk but had to use this board only.  The first part of the SETT is to gather information about the student.  Using the communication board, I asked everyone to tell me about this boy.  This proved to be quite difficult for all as the board was mostly nouns.  One person tried to tell me about his toileting, by pointing to the toilet and "don't want".  I played along and asked, "You don't want to use the toilet?"  She shook her head.  Another person pointed to swing but of course, she couldn't say he loves to swing.  Dad just pointed to "don't want" and I asked what do the student not want?  He said out loud, "I don't want to do this."  After a couple more minutes, we debriefed by saying how hard it would be for the student to communicate using just this board.  We all realized that something would have to change for this board in order for this student to be able to communicate more effectively.

The rest of the process was fantastic and we ended up learning a lot about the student through the first part of the SETT: S (Student).  Dad shared his hopes and dreams for his son.  Next, we learned much about the Environment (E) and found the student needs to make his way into the classroom each and every day but agreed that he needed to have purposeful activities when he is in there.

Next we defined what the tasks are for this student (T) and finally discovered possible tools (T). In the end we took all the information gathered and shared it on a Google Doc to see if we had missed anything. The process really teased out specific goals and gave the school information regarding what needs to be in the IPP and what steps are needed to transition this student to high school.  We looked at possible placements, including the student's community high school. It was especially important for the parent to share his hopes and dreams for his son so the school could act on this information also.

This was proof that the learning team must include all stakeholders and everyone must have their say, but most important we need to hear the family's hopes and dreams.