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What really mattered…

May29

Last week, our whole staff were privileged to attend the Sandhurst Education Conference.  Hosted by our Catholic Education Office, the conference was two days of horrible weather, terrible 3G service and (let’s face it) fairly ordinary food!  Listening to staff conversations this week however, it’s clear that the conference ‘nailed it’ where it matters.  I can’t tell you how many fantastic discussions I’ve walked into or sat down amongst these past two days back at school.  Our teachers and support staff are enthused and excited about the ideas they heard and the people they met.  I have not come across one person on our staff who didn’t get something profound out of the two days.  Classroom architecture, differentiated curriculum, servant leadership, inquiry learning, habits of mind, courageous living, mentoring, ICT in Ed, spirituality, Gen Z, artistic grace…these are the topics (and more!) swirling around in people’s hearts and minds.   In the middle of a long and busy term, it was just the pick-me-up we all needed to continue our pursuit of the best ways to engage learning and pursue excellence (in whatever form that might take).  Of course, the challenge now is to breath life into the ideas, and channel our renewed energy into ‘wins’ for ourselves and for the students.

One great pleasure for me as Principal, is the knowledge that these discussion will turn into recommendations and actions.  We have the structures in place for this to happen, but more importantly, I believe we now have a critical mass of teachers with the confidence to make things happen.  Risk-taking or ‘giving it a go’ is now common in our classrooms.  There is a new playfulness to our culture, which encourages and inspires us to give things a try.  Daily, I feel encouraged and supported by teachers who shoot through an email, or drop in for a chat about something new they are attempting with their students.  They are ‘leaders’ (many by their action, rather than by title) who dare to encourage, dare to try, and dare to ask.  They are managing change.  They are considering how to prepare their peers for new frontiers.  They are evaluating and tweaking.  They are courageously moving us into a new way of being.

I might be wrong, but it feels to me like the conference brought us all onto the same page in a way that no plan or policy could possibly have done.  We were affirmed in our steps thus far, and emboldened to go further.  We were held up as leaders, but also found mentors amongst those in other places who are pursuing, enabling and ennobling learning with purpose and joy.  They say the Spirit moves in mysterious ways.  At our place, she’s drawing us to a new professional collegiality that not so long ago, we couldn’t possibly have imagined.

Tweachers are a new breed…

March24

Every time someone else I know gets the Twitter bug, I get so excited.  I’ve come to realise that the reason I love Twitter so much is that it opens my world to so much more than the small interests and daily interactions and experiences of my world.  I am 100% certain that my professional and private life are better because of the people I’ve met and the ideas I’ve encountered through Twitter.  I think about broader topics and make links between people and ideas that I would never otherwise have considered.

This morning (Saturday morning!), one of the Home Ec teachers at my school emailed me to ask if she can start a Blog related to her classes (note to self: why did she feel the need to ask?  What have I not communicated/encouraged?).  Of course she can (Go get ’em, @JgeorgeJulie)! Even more exciting was her second email, that was CC’d to our English Coordinator (@JacDeola) and our Literacy/Numeracy Leader (@KateGready), and asked if we could do more to build spelling across the Curriculum…with a suggestion for how to go about it!

I put her enthusiasm down to the magic of Twitter.  While Julie is searching for information, connections and ideas about Home Ec, she is also encountering inspiring readings about literacy, thinking skills and the ways other schools are developing the learning experiences of their students.  Rarely a day goes by when I don’t sit down to a conversation with a staff member about something they learnt on Twitter the evening before.  We talk about various Tweeps (whom we don’t know in person) with great familiarity.  We swap “good follows” and remind each other to check out an article we retweeted.  We get excited for each other when someone gets a reply for a question they’ve asked (especially if it’s from one of our learning heroes).  Most importantly though, we talk about learning in so much and in so many  ways that simply didn’t happen before we all got involved in Twitter.  We look with pity on those who don’t know what we’re talking about…

As a Principal, I can’t help looking more favourably on those staff who are taking the time and effort to expand their world through their online connections.  I feel constant frustration that some teachers (and many of my Principal Colleagues) don’t/can’t appreciate how their own learning can be so enhanced by such a small effort, and I would love to have the courage to ask more people “do you think life-long-learning applies to everyone but you”?

 

PS: You can check out all the St Joseph’s Staff on Twitter: here

Explainable, not excusable.

February22

During the staff days at the start of the year, we had a terrific session with Jo Lange. Jo was working with us on the simple techniques that help reduce behavioural issues in the classroom, and how to manage some of the more high end disruptive behaviours. She explained the broad categories that disruptive students fall into, and explored some of their key motivations for disruptive behaviour, which was all tremedously useful.

One of the key things that has stayed with me since that day, is the idea of exploring with students the notion that poor behaviour chioces can be thought of as “explainable, but not excusable”. More and more, I find our students able to explain their behaviour (“I did it because…”), while failing to see that even while there might be truth in their reasoning, that particular behaviour is not excusable in our community. Perhaps even more so, parents can fall into this trap and the ensuing blame game.

I have found the simple phrase “Yes, I understand that behaivour is explainable, but that does not make it excusable” pulls the antagonists up short, and turns the discussion in a more productive direction almost immediately. I commend it to you as a useful tool in your kit.

Interestingly, I have also heard a few teachers use the phrase when speaking about their peers. Utilising our “Agreed Behaviours” from earlier in the year, discussions are able to occur more readily, because our team leaders and experienced teachers feel empowered to begin a discussion, highlighting the difference between why “something” is happening, and whether that “something” (such as a teacher using a different assessment task to the rest of their team, or a staffmember failing to use our agreed behaviour management steps) is acceptable in our community.

None of us a perfect, and this approach to professional accountability requires sensitivity, trust and care on behalf of all those invovled, to ensure that we are building up our colleagues and their professional ability. In inexperienced or agenda-driven hands, the encouragement to engage in challenging professional conversations could endanger our community and the sense of collegiality we have. Our short-term anecdotal evidence is that, in fact, the opposite is occurring…

Be Aware. Be Courageous. Be More.

February4

This is an extract from the address I made to staff on the first day of 2012.

A couple of weeks before the end of school, a group of students and staff crowded into the Hopwood room to discuss, deliberate and discern a framework to help our school community better reflect and grow throughout 2012. Over the last two years, we have examined the notions of “Strength and Kindliness” in greater detail.  They have formed the basis of our prayer life, our reflections, and the key addresses to our community.  The group decided that whilst one option might, be to spend the next five years looking at each of the Core Values in turn, a more prudent approach might be to introduce an annual theme, which could provide a lens, or a window onto the way we engender and live the Core Values and our motto “Strength and Kindliness” each day.  To this end, it’s my pleasure to announce that our College theme for 2012 is “Be Aware. Be Courageous.  Be More”.

I don’t know about you, but I find those six words very exciting and confronting.  I’ve had the luxury of being able to mull over the theme for a few weeks now, and am startled by how many areas of our lives they apply to.  If you think about your attitude to our Professional learning time together over the next few days, how can you be aware, be courageous and be more.  If you think about the preparation of your classes, how can you be aware, be courageous, be more?  If you think about your care of the students with whom you your spend time, or about your spirituality, how can you be aware, be courageous, be more.  As a school, when we speak about respecting ourselves, each other and our environment, how can we, as a community be aware, be courageous and be more?  When we talk about Strength, or Kindliness, or welcoming all, especially the most vulnerable, how can we be aware, be courageous, be more?

To be aware is an interesting challenge to attend to.  Awareness implies that we are attuned to the moment, cogniscent of what has been before and with an eye to the future, but most importantly awareness is profoundly engaged in the people and events our any given moment.  Awareness calls us to notice emotions, needs and dynamics in a more subtle way, and it requires our time, our quietened mind and our open heart, so as to most truly discern the most important instance in any given encounter.  Awareness needs peace of mind and it grows when practised.  To this end, every Friday morning, we will be gathering as a staff for meditation and prayer, to cultivate our awareness and give space to God to enter our hearts and minds, so as to increase our awareness of our own needs, and the needs of others.  In each day however, the challenge lies with each of us to be attuned our call to “Be Aware” to our own needs, and the needs of others in our community.

To Be Courageous is a spectacular challenge in anyone’s books.  Each day, there are little moments where we are called to step outside our comfort zone for any one of a number of reasons.  As people involved in Catholic education, we are repeatedly called to be courageous in confronting things that are morally wrong – in our students, in each other, and in our world.  This year we have committed to the development of “agreed behaviours”.  Our growth as people and as educators will rely on our common courage to challenge behaviours and actions in each other that do not enhance the learning of our students, or the building of our community.

Building our personal courage and empowering each other and the students to do the same is scary, because it intrinsically acknowledges that we each know that we can do better, that we can expect more from each other, that we can dream of and build a school community that is better than the one we have now.  Change requires courage, and being courageous calls us to new horizons and challenges.

For many months now, the Leadership Team have been using the book “Uncommon Gratitude” as the basis of our prayer during our meetings.  The section we read just this week reminded us that “it is precisely those unstable eras of our lives that make or break us.  They bring great changes to bear on us.  They draw greatness out of us.  They demand of us the holy audacity to believe that, having dealt with the past, I am equal to the future as well.  Today I can handle,  I know.  Tomorrow may ask something of me that I have never been called to give before.  I am not prepared for it; I am simply there.  But every new day that I cope with well is another exercise in the courage I did not know I had.”  Be Aware. Be courageous. Be more.

The phrase “Be More” is stolen straight from Caritas Australia’s campaigns over the past few years.  It is aspirational.  It encourages us to dream, and to be audacious in our goals. If we began each day, each class, each interaction with the simple maximum “Be more” quietly chanting in our souls, what possibilities there might be.  I have this funny feeling that as we get older, the call to “be more” gets quieter and quieter in our hearts, as we settle onto familiar patters and expected behaviours.  Our challenge this year is to reawaken that chant, and allow it to disturb and disrupt us.  To allow it to open our inner eye to the possibilities we possess within, and to impel us forward into new ventures and new ways of being.  Do you have a vision of what your “more” is.  Have you every fully allowed yourself to imagine how different you could be if you unleashed all your professional, public and private purpose in the direction of “being more”.  This year, our challenge is not only to open ourselves to “being more” but to encourage and support others to do the same.  Our culture unconsciously hinders change and growth…the tall poppy syndrome in which Australians specialise is just one example of this, but we can and must overcome it, not just for the sake of our students and our professional integrity, but for the sake of ourselves, our unspoken dreams, and the private, persistent call in each of our hearts that we can, and must, be more.

I heard recently of a gentleman who had worked with teachers in some of the most dangerous places on our planet, the favaelas of South America, the slums of Gaza, the make-shift schools in refugee camps throughout Africa.  He shared the stories of teachers who said goodbye to students at the end of the day, knowing in their hearts that there was a more than reasonable chance those children could be murdered during the night.  In telling these stories, he asked a simple question: if you could know that the young person in front of you might not make it through to tomorrow’s dawn, how would you change your teaching and their learning?  This might seem like an extreme example to make a simple point, but when it comes right down to it, what would you most want that child to learn, and how would you want to inspire and build that learning, so that the student left your care feeling valued and celebrated?  Do we teach or interact as if today is that student’s last day? Do we ever enter the conversation or correct the behaviour thinking this might be the last time this young person hears our voice? Do we remember that our students are precariously vulnerable in so many ways, and that whilst it is unlikely that armed gunmen are waiting in the street for them, their mental, emotional and spiritual health could be far from stable? Be aware. Be courageous. Be more.

As educators in a Catholic school, we have a Covenant that is far greater than any contract.  Contracts put boundaries and understandings around roles.  Covenant is an ancient word, referring to the binding agreements that pertain to every aspect of ourselves: our character, our aspirations and our vocation.  The Covenant of a Catholic educator challenges us to see the world as God sees it, full of potential and possibility.  The Covenant inspires us to do better, to strive for more, to draw ourselves ever closer to the perfect version of ourselves that God so dearly wants us to be.  When we prioritise our Covenant over our contract, we truly recognise ourselves as God’s hands, voice, feet and heart in our world.  We understand that we are the conduit through which God brings light and justice, love and peace into dark corners and sad hearts.  We believe ourselves to be the vehicles through which lives are changed. Be aware. Be courageous. Be more.

This year, in very particular ways, we have charged ourselves and each other with the responsibility of doing everything in our power to make our students learning experience more valuable and engaging.  Whether you’re a classroom teacher or support in any of the many other roles within our community, essentially our eyes are all on the same prize – that the young people in our care receive from us an education that allows them to grow into the best person they can be.  The Covenant calls us to ensure that every encounter brings life and possibility to the young people in our care. In this way, our commitment to developing a differentiated curriculum, our exploration of e-learning days, the undertaking of the acceleration program, the growth of the work of our PLTs , the introduction of Habits of Mind, and the rewriting of our Vision, Mission and Graduate Outcomes are more than the responsibilities we must undertake, they are our enacting of the Covenant we have with our God in very real ways.  Luckily for us, covenants are a two way straight, and while we work hard ensuring that God has our hands, feet, voice and heart in this world, God steadily supplies us with the joy-filled and satisfying experiences and people that make life such a gift.  In this respect, I really believe that here at St Joseph’s we are blessed many times over!

We have another busy and exciting year ahead of us.  We will have our ups and our downs, both professionally and personally.  None of us are perfect, but we together, we are a special and unique community, who make God present in our world in any number of ways.   We have a rich heritage and an exciting future, and I for one, am seriously excited about the possibilities before us in 2012.  I look forward to your input, your energy, your care of the students, your care of each other, the laughter, the adventures and even the difficult times.  I look forward to sharing them with you, and I look forward to sitting here in eleven months time, celebrating the journey we have undertaken and the miracles and joys we have encountered along the way.

Agreeing to disturb each other…

February4

One of our first staff activities for 2012 was to discuss and begin to settle on our “agreed behaviours” as a collegial team.  Towards the end of 2011, we invited all staff (teachers and ancillary) to put forward some suggestions about areas where they believed we as a staff had conflicting approaches that hindered our work with the students and also increased the stress of our peers.  The list included everything from teaching the agreed curriculum and following behaviour management protocols, through to professional dress, having a tidy workspace and an engaging, clean classroom.  We ended up grouping the suggestions into five key areas: “Trusting relationships”, “Professional dialogue”; “Learning is the core focus”, “Professional Duties” and “2012 Stress-Busters”.

As we reconvened from the teams where we had been discussing not only what the “agreed behaviour” might look lie, but how we would like to be reminded/approached if we “fell of the bandwagon”, the atmosphere in the room was electric.  “That was the most real conversation we’ve ever had” said one of our teachers. “I feel like we talked about things that have always been taboo” said another.  “I like that we had a professional conversation about how to hold each other accountable” chimed in a third.  The rest of the room was nodding along.

What a wonderful fresh appreciation of professional relationships we’ve started the year with!  We’re not (and never have been) a dysfunctional staff by any means, but the buzz as we look forward to the kids beginning on Monday is tremendous.  There is a confidence that the real issues have been brought to front and centre, and that even in doing this brief exercise, let alone the power of the potential of the follow-up conversations, we have given license to each other to courageously encourage each other to “be more” in our teaching and other professional duties.

 

The Bingo Bonanza

October12

Over the last three weeks of Term 3, we played a Bingo game with our staff (the cards we have used for the last three years can be found here).  Over the three weeks, they had 15 tasks to be signed off.  These ranged from visiting classes (Science, PE, Home Ec, Maths) to spending time in the front office, or the library or in our Learning Enhancement centre.  Staff who managed to get everything signed off went into a draw for an iPad.  Cool stuff.

Today in our PLTs, we asked staff for feedback on their experiences.  Keep in mind that we did not set up any expectations for staff (we had hopes, but kept them to ourselves in the Leadership Team).  The feedback today exceeded our wildest expectations…

  • I loved being in other people’s rooms and seeing how they do things.  I learnt so much about how to do things better.
  • It was such a joy to see people “doing their thing”. Inspiring.
  • The kids really enjoyed having different teachers in the spaces with them.  They loved that we were playing a game, but that were were obviously enjoying it, and learning stuff at the same time.
  • It was great to see what amazing things our teachers are doing.  We forget that we have very inspirational people right here in our midst.
  • I could see that a number of our staff offer personalised learning already.  I have to get a move on.
  • We really have some talented people using ICT in amazing ways in this place.  Kids were teaching me how to use these different programs.  They were so proud.
  • Our Teacher Aides and office workers work really hard!
  • Teachers were saying “there’s nothing special going on in my room” but actually, their kids were doing amazing things…it had just become “normalised”.
  • If had forgotten our Chapel existed.  It was such a lovely blessing to just sit quietly in there for 20 minutes.  The light was gorgeous and the quiet just touched my heart.  I came out with tears in my eyes.
  • I enjoyed seeing the kids in different spaces, interacting with a different teacher.  That alone gave me some good ideas about how to work in my classes.
  • Bingo just opened the doors – people were talking about what they were doing in their classrooms ALL THE TIME.  The conversation in the staffroom changed!  Collaboration was really real.
This experience has been such a positive time for us.  We’ve decided to commit to it again next year, but in the interim, to end each morning briefing with the question: Does anyone have anything cool or interesting going on in their class today that others can visit?  There should be lots of fun, and more great learning ahead…

Hello! I’m more than 140 characters.

October8

I just had a wonderful time at this year’s ACEL conference in Adelaide. Anyone following the #acel11 hashtag would know that really valuable and challenging ideas and best-practice were being pursued. Something I regret now, however, is not having invited all those who were tweeting throughout to gather for a cuppa and introductions. It’s wonderful to share an experience online, but where opportunity exists to meet in person, this should be grabbed. My mistake. I’ll know better next time (and there will be a next time!).

Just thinking…

March14

Principals are a bit spoilt in that we frequently get access to speakers and high quality educational thinkers.  It’s a good sign that most Principal meetings now also include an element of Professional Learning, so that we are being constantly challenged to reflect on “next practice” for our school communities.  Lately, there’s been a lot to think about.  I thought that to be fair to my school community, I’d just throw about a few of the things that are on my mind at the moment.  In doing so, I hope more people (teachers, students, parents, interested community members) can feel encouraged to be part of the conversation.  These items are in no particular order, and some (such as the first two) are already on the Agenda of the Curriculum Team:

Kids at school

How do we improve their learning?

  • Do our students understand the difference between homework and study?  Are we just setting a lot of “busy-work” for homework (“…finish this at home”), or is there genuine learning going on?  What is the place of Homework in the 21st Century?
  • E-Learning Days: Do all students need to be in a classroom every day?  If we’re serious about “unlocking learning”, why are we still building traditional courses where the kids are in front of a teacher all-day, every-day?  What are the opportunities in this for freeing up teachers for “clinics” in areas where students need extra support or extension?
  • Common Assessment Tasks – where do these fit within Differentiated Learning? In “Lay-terminology”: If we set the same task for all Year 9 English students, do we really have a sense of all that they are capable of, or just whether or not they can do that particular task?  If this task doesn’t inspire them to do their best, do we really learn anything from its submission?
  • Which begs the question…do we really understand Differentiated Learning?
  • VETiS (Vocational Educational Training in Schools) Courses: Under its current model, VETiS is very expensive, and only caters for a small number of students.  If we ran more courses in-house, we would actually generate income to use in other exciting ways!  How can we look at VETiS in a way that enhances our curriculum and student pathways, rather than as a program we “buy into” for a select group of kids?  Also, how would a “one-day out” model work for us (eg. all VET classes occur on a Wednesday, for the full day)?
  • VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) is highly valued and growing in other schools, but not so much in ours.  How can we turn this around for the benefit of our students?

OK, that’s just a few things that I’d love some thoughts on.  I look forward to reading you responses & online discussion.

The Principal’s Job

September12

On Friday, the Victorian Catholic Secondary Principals gathered for one of our regular meetings. The opening address was made by a representative of the State Education Department, bringing us up to speed with Government initiatives to support and develop leaders within the school community, and especially to prepare aspiring Principals for the exciting times ahead. She did a great job, and it was excellent to hear about the many opportunities being afforded to our Government School colleagues. The programs that have been developed form part of an overall strategy to improve student outcomes, but also to attract people to Principal positions. In the Victorian Catholic sector, we currently have two schools that have been unable to determine suitable appointments for their Principalships, and are re-advertising their Principal positions as we speak.  Interesting times.

As I’m sure we’re  all aware, Principalship is an extremely demanding job, which requires you to be “on your game” every day of the year (yes, even during the holidays!).  Indeed, as one of my Principal colleagues remarked on Friday “I don’t know about this work-life balance thing…I certainly can’t find it!”  A further “complicating factor” in our sector is that aspiring Principals need not only be strong and visionary educational leaders, they must also be practicing Catholics.  This aspect of leadership is critically important in maintaining the distinctive Catholic identity of our schools, but simultaneously narrows the field for leadership considerably.

“Succession planning” is the phrase on everyone’s lips at the moment, especially those of us currently undertaking POL appointments.  I haven’t had one Principal tell me that they’ve been bowled over with applications for their Middle-management positions, and a quick glance at Saturday’s Age pretty much confirms that there aren’t a lot of people jumping at the opportunity to experience leadership.

In any case, what I thought I might do this week, is try to capture three key moments of joy that I experience each day(bearing in mind that it’s the last week of Term, so things are a little more frantic than usual), in the hope that one more person might be inspired to discern more fully where their leadership journey might take them:

Sunday:

Tonight I’ve received 3 great emails that have warmed my heart: (1) from a parent, coordinating a fundraiser for our Jazz Band.  She’s excited and motivated to make the evening great for the students and their parents (2) from a teacher, offering to take on any extra job that I’ve asked staff to consider.  This will require some additional work on her part, but she’s excited for the opportunity. (3) from a teacher, letting me know that his new class wiki is up and running.  Teachers don’t often share what they’re teaching, but ICT has certainly put paid to that!  There are 23 things on my “to-do” list for tomorrow…and they’re just the ones I know about!

Monday:

(1) We’ve formed a partnership with a local business in town, which is a success story for us in many ways.  Today their GM and I exchanged several excited emails as we prepared the press release.  New beginnings are always exciting. (2) We solve a maternity leave issue for one of our staff.  We had been led to believe that our EBA would not provide her with leave, but some quick thinking and tenacity from our Business Manager saw a fantastic result for all concerned.  (3) 12 staff have indicated that they’d like to travel to East Timor together next Easter, to help teach English and work with the teachers in our sister-school.  They will go at own expense, giving up their holidays…truly generous people.

Tuesday:

(1) Put a class on the bus to head off to a variety of community service placements.  The kids just love this opportunity…and one of the most disengaged boys we have at school spends a delightful hour each week sitting beside an elderly man at a piano at a local old-peoples home, bopping along while his best mate (also a teen) “dances” with a lady called Mavis.  Glorious.  (2) I love choosing colours for furniture in new classrooms.  8 rooms to outfit for beginning of 2011. Bliss! (3) Spoke to the Year 11s about their opportunity to nominate for school leadership next year.  Faces full of hope and anticipation as we discuss “Servant Leadership”.  They just got it.

Wednesday

OK, so today I spent 4 hours in the car, driving to and from another school to sit on the interview panel for their new Deputy Principal position.  Four blissful hours in the car, just me, the radio, the talking book, peace…all on a work day!  It’s great to have the opportunity to hear how other schools are organising their Leadership Teams, and better still, hearing from interviewees about the exciting things going on in their schools.  Privileged stuff. Love it.

Thursday

Today we interviewed nine people for teaching positions.  Most were graduates, fresh-faced and raring to go, but a couple were experienced teachers, looking to move into the Catholic sector or to a country town.  Most were well prepared, and a few came with exceptionally well considered questions and comments about our school.  I experienced some disappointment that most gave fairly pat answers to questions about ICT in the classroom, but largely I blame the Universities for that, not the individuals.  Nonetheless, came away feeling very hopeful about some of the initiatives we want to undertake next year, and how suitable the staffing will be to handle it all.

Friday

Last day of Term…always frantic AND happy!  Our student leaders ran a fantastic Assembly today, recapping all the great achievements of our students over the past 10 weeks.  Academic, Sporting, Public Speaking, Contribution to College Life, Health campaigns, social justice…a really broad section of kids acknowledging that others are excelling in a variety of fields.   Holidays began with staff tired, but happy that much had been achieved.  A pleasure to behold.


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