It Takes a Community
The SAVMP challenge for this blog post is to capture your vision for school. I’ve been a school administrator for 12 years. When I reflect on my own change and growth I can best define my ‘Educational Philosphy’ with the word Community.
Here is a photo of some materials found in my home. I recently ripped the top half story off. In the process I saved as much of the fir framing lumber that I could. It is solid, dry and 50 year old wood that is strong like metal. Using this lumber and some new material with a tool I borrowed from a friend and most importantly an idea my wife and I had for reusing the lumber, I set about creating something new. The second picture captures our new coffee table and wall shelf made from the beautiful wood that existed hidden from sight for the last 5 decades.
Just as these varied materials were shaped to become pretty cool furniture, so too are the students we meet each day of their public school lives.
In my example students are the lumber – their potential may be hidden or not. They are waiting to become wall supports, furniture, art or some fusion of each. The staff are like the – I get to work, shape and reshape. My borrowed tools are like the resources (parents, volunteers, partnerships, supplies) we gather and use to assist us in the work, the more tools the better the finished product will look. However, it is the vision my wife and I developed that drove the whole project. Without this vision the lumber may have remained as wall supports or in the construction garbage.
George Couros referred to the notion of “it takes a village to raise a child” and I believe in that proverb. I have started adding a second line “it takes a community to be a village” to highlight my strong belief in relationship.
As a school administrator I believe that I need to build relationship with each of the stakeholders in the school community. This means that I spend time with each of the staff, with students, with families and with community members. I listen, talk, and even plan with everyone so that we can create a common vision for our school. Each of the school teams I have worked with know that I will use a PATH planning tool to set our vision, as the principal I have been able to invite parents and community members in to the process.
My current school is in a community that has a low SES score tied to high needs and a low graduation rate. I recall the first time I invited parents to come to a school vision setting session! Their first response was “What has he done?” They followed with “You want me to what?” Finally were happy to come out and add to our conversations. Much more empowering than a regular PTA meeting, having parents participate in this manner creates connections that stick. Communication freely flows and several parents now become advocates for the school and more participatory in their child’s education.
I often recite the mantra “Our best and brightest for our most at-risk.” to our staff. Working with students who are emotionally charged due to their own issues and needs is in itself potentially draining. Staff members need to see that they make a difference in these students’ lives. They need to be supported and celebrated in this work. Each member of the team is an important part of achieving our vision. Each staff member, regardless of his or her position in the system, is a leader. My role is to encourage, support, seek PD and funding to enable their success. I have used the example of shining a light on staff members: when you become the leader you need to shine the light not on yourself but on others so that they can find their way, and be seen as well. One of the gauges I use to measure my success in this role is to look at the trajectory of our staff. As in many schools, people move on and leave our team. I will look at where they are moving to and reflect if it is in a generally upward and improved position – a leadership position - or is it down and out? By this I mean have the departing team members gained skills and experience that is taking them to a new and stronger position in their own journeys? (I think I will explain this further in a later post!)
Students are also in need of being a part of something bigger. As the educational leader in the building I ensure that there are many opportunities for our students to attach themselves to positive and tangible structures. This might take the form of being a member of a team, a choir, or it might be as simple as owning a school t-shirt. Students are given the opportunity to see themselves in a positive way. One of the earliest activities I recall at my current school was to have each student make a clay tile to decorate the hallway. The tiles were kiln fired and attached to the wall by the office. Each year now we have our departing Grade 5 students add another tile to the halls. This creates a physical attachment to the school and an anchor to the point in time when the student is positive and there are many possibilities ahead. I say it like this as I have had three different students over the last few years who have not been successful in further school return to visit; they inevitably walk to their tile, touch it and remember the ‘good times’ they had at our school. I see this positive expression as a measure of our success in creating community. In past years former students often vandalized our school and yard.
Traditional printed newsletters have not been successful in our community. We have made a transition to classroom news and classroom blogs. Over the last few years we have celebrated our achievements with videos and songs that are now on YouTube. In efforts to strengthen our communication with each other, with learners in other parts of the world and most importantly with our students and their families we are working to curate our on line presence into a one stop shop. The school now has its own blog brooklandselementary.blogspot.ca and we have linked our classroom blogs, Instagram, YouTube channel and soon Twitter feed through it. Our teachers are trying out the Remind101 app to connect directly with parents and guardians. We hope that parents and families will use these open lines of communication.
People can live side by side in today’s village and never know who their neighbours are and what their children learn. As the educational leader in my current school, I work towards creating community through relationship. Parent involvement, staff leadership, student attachment and open communication are the strands that I hope will weave us all into a stronger community and that we will become the village that raises the child.