High School was all about freedoms, but there was also a fair share of routine. One of the routines was rushing home after school to watch the ever-popular Video Hits which came on at 4:00. Initially greeted each day by Dan Gallagher, the show moved to Samantha Taylor who ushered me through my teen years.
Adding to the excitement of Video Hits was the fact that all your friends and classmates were doing the same thing. Shortly after the show, we would all run to our landlines and call around ranking the best of the videos. We’d slag the bands and genres we didn’t really like and critique the quality of the videos. For me, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran was the benchmark from which all other videos were to be judged. Needless to say, we all started Beta and VHS collections of the recorded show, which we then watched over and over again.
Returning to school the next day, we all vied for attention as we staked our claims to having for being a bigger fan of a particular band or artist and proclaiming newly aired videos as hits or duds. “Discovering” a new band was a pretty big deal and committing to a new band could put you on the firing line of scrutiny and trust me when I say a horde of high school boys could be brutal toward their friends for stepping out of line. It would usually go something like this: “Hey, that new Pet Shop Boys video was pretty cool.”
What you really wanted to hear was a simply “Yeah”, but what you usually got was “Oh man, you’re such an idiot”, or “Of course you love the Pet Shop Boys you freakin' preppy”. You really needed to be sure you were on board with a new band before you were willing to subject yourself to these kinds of risks.
One other thing that Video Hits offered was a commitment to Canadian content. I think that commitment was critical to the success of fringe acts like Glass Tiger or Platinum Blonde who, in my retrospective opinion, were able to carve our sales and a fan base based solely on their video plays. One day a grainy, poorly filmed, instantly Canadian video rolled out. I can still recall the exact experience because it was the same each and every time an experimental Canadian video aired – “Man, this is gonna be great to shred this with the boys tomorrow in the cafeteria”. The video rolled and the first line you heard was “Ladies and Gentlemen, our very own Tragically Hip”… Tragically Hip? What?
I can’t remember if there was a phone conversation that day after Video Hits, but I do remember the Tragically Hip coming up right away in the cafeteria the next day. My friends Dave and Rob immediately proclaimed Small Town Bringdown as a success, only to be met with laughter and ridicule from the rest. My comment? “The Tragically Hip are tragically s&%t!” a line which I proceeded to use for the next couple years while Dave and Rob became immediate fans of the band. They tried to push their EP into the cassette players only to have them immediately ejected and maybe even tossed in the backseat or across the room. They stayed true, and as true as they were, I was even more insistent about their demise uttering, at will, my now immediate refrain, “The Tragically Hip are tragically s&%t!”
Then came a day not unlike any other day, whether it was on Video Hits or Much Music, the long-awaited new release from The Tragically Hip was about to drop. I licked my proverbial chops ready to slam the latest offering to my two Hip-loving friends. I can only say that what came next was perhaps my first lesson in humility. The first few chords of Blow at High Dough literally kicked my butt and before the video had ended I went from the biggest hater to a legitimate fan. There was no denying that Dave and Rob had staked claim to something big. They were right, I was wrong, and I was all in.
To say Up To Here was amazing would be an understatement. It was the gateway to a decades long love affair and quite literally and simply, the soundtrack of my life, corresponding with the most critical ages of my maturity into adulthood: Up to Here (18), Road Apples (20), Fully Completely (21), Day for Night (23), Trouble at the Henhouse (25), Phantom Power (28), etc.
Since the announcement of Gord Downie’s terminal cancer diagnosis the entire country embraced, re-embraced, or embraced the band harder. We all realize and accept that The Tragically Hip have affected all of our lives in some way, but the best part is how each of us have managed to create and hold on to many special moments that belong to no one else other than ourselves.
I never met Gord or the band, but in listening to the many stories of the life of Gord Downie over the last several days I feel like I knew him. In my mind I would run into him randomly somewhere, be immediately awestruck by his celebrity and struggle for words only to have him kindly introduce himself and go about asking questions about who I am and what my story is. This is the simply Canadian essence of Gord Downie and those who knew him best have confirmed it. As a related aside, I knew this genuine warmth and humble nature because I was fortunate to have had an amazing friend, Brett Kilroe, who would also treat everyone with intense kindness and who had that unique ability to make you feel like you were the only one in the room, and the only one he cared about. Sadly, Brett passed last year due to a long battle with cancer, but I think that Brett lived his life like Gord, and this was tragically mirrored in their passing.
Gord Downie’s passing last week causes aches for many small reasons which collectively make a larger void. Ultimately, I feel that I want to thank Gord Downie for all these small things. Gord Downie, thank you for:
Last weekend I got into the car with my 16 year-old son to head to a hockey tournament in Banff. I let him drive so I could DJ the drive into the mountains. I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate Gord Downie’s life than this. The first song was Small Town Bringdown and my son turned to me almost immediately and says “I don’t really like this, can we listen to my music?”
I just turned to him and said “give it some time, it’ll grow on you.”
Please feel free to comment and share your story. It's been so amazing to hear all the great ways in which Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip has intersected all of our lives.
Inspiration is everywhere. As an educator it’s one of the most amazing parts about the job. One of the most inspirational moments in my early career came when I was teaching grade one. There were more than a few students in my class that had trouble reading and I knew that it was going to be a long year with a lot of hard work ahead to get these students where they needed to be.
As I began that year of teaching I came in with the intention of covering all my curricular outcomes for the year. My fancy teacher binder housed all my day, week, month, and year plans and I was ready for the year. Accompanying my plans, I had an actual checklist with all my grade one learning outcomes and I was set to go through them one by one until I could successfully say that I had done my job and taught the entire curriculum.
My first mission was to make these non-readers into readers as quickly as I could so that I could check that box off and just get on with other things. On a day-to-day perspective, working with these struggling readers was daunting. There was little additional support, and success was slow or non-existent. One student would start to make gains, and then two more seems unresponsive to intervention. It felt like the proverbial one step up, two steps back. Every. Single. Day.
My day plans soon went out the window. My month plans got set back. My year plans therefore also needed a complete overhaul. What were these non-readers doing to me? I was a complete and utter wreck because everything I had set up before the year had even started were now obliterated thanks to all the time I was needing to devote to basic literacy skills.
I decided to turn my blame on to others - the kindergarten teachers, the parents, the school administration, my team partners, my educational assistant, my university professors, and my teacher preparation program. If I’m honest, I even thought about dropping my intervention altogether and turning my attention to my other students who could read. I thought, “maybe these students just aren’t ready to read yet” and wondered if I could just leave the heavy lifting to the grade two teachers.
For a time, the despair was a constant in my world, but there was another constant, and that was a group of eager students who wanted to read. One day, one of my students with whom I was doing intervention came up to me and said “Mr. Fero, when can we read together again” and that simple comment provided all the inspiration I needed.
So I didn’t give up. When one strategy didn’t take hold, I tried another. I consulted with colleagues and accessed system supports. I made sure my readers had the right materials, and I was giving them the right feedback. But the most important part of the work is that I didn’t lose faith. I persisted. And while I thought it was my efforts that encouraged my students, it was the persistence and resiliency of my students that pushed me on. You see; they didn’t give up either.
I would love to say that the story had a perfect ending. I would love to say that each of those non-readers became great readers, but that would be a lie. While they all didn’t become readers that year, many did. What each of them did achieve during that grade one year was a set of skills that would benefit them in the years going forward and I would like to think that they developed a sense that there were teachers there to help them, and push them and work alongside them.
For me, the year taught me many things too. It taught me that despite the best laid plans that things may need to go in a different direction. I realized that my work might not be THE work, and that the students and their needs were the most important part of the job. I thank my non-readers for providing me that inspiration, and equally thankful for the lessons they taught me.
This year, my blog posts will be focused on the moments and things that inspire me as an educator and as a person. I am continually in awe of the many ways in which we are inspired and what particular things we choose to be inspired by. Happy reading, and thanks for taking the time.
The late spring is a great time to reconnect with friends. After a winter of hibernation, the decks and patios get cleaned up, the barbeques fire up, and the good times begin. During these times, my non-teacher friends begin their barrage of (mostly good-natured) comments about June being “movie month” and how everyone at schools appear to be pretty much in “shut down” mode gearing up for summer. The reality though is that this could not be further from the truth.
For students, teachers, and even families, June is the most stressful and difficult month of the school year. Here is what June really looks like in schools.
For students in an elementary school environment, June is a roller coaster ride of emotion and many of these them don’t understand why, or have the words to express their feelings. You see, they know the end of the year is coming and their brains begin to realize that this will bring about a significant change in their lives as they transition away from the teacher who has been by their side for the past ten months. They have come to know their teacher as their champion, their confidant, their coach, and maybe even a friend. Their teacher has seen the best of them, and the worst of them and knows every single trick in their playbook.
Looking back to my classroom teaching days, I would always play a game with my students I called I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself where I would go around the classroom and predict the summer plans for each of my students, how they were likely feeling about that, and what their hopes and fears were for the next school year. After I would finish a prediction, I would ask the student to tell me if I was a) perfectly right, b) mostly right, c) somewhat right and somewhat wrong, d) mostly wrong, or e) way wrong. I can say that I never got anything other than a “perfectly right” or “mostly right”. My favourite was always the look of the student who would almost invariably look at me as through I were a magician and say something along the lines of “how did you know that?” These are the types of connections teachers make with their students, and they are significant and powerful.
The student reaction to this change can be equally significant and powerful. Some students begin to get teary, others start to get real quiet, but the most obvious sign that the change is hard for students is in their behaviour. June is by far the most difficult month for behaviour concerns and as a principal; I believe it’s because of this emotional roller coaster. And while I am not a psychologist, I can draw some immediate parallels to separation anxiety.
For teachers, June is our busiest month. On top of the regular day-to-day planning and assessment, there are report cards and what becomes a million end-of-year to-dos. We are also back-loaded with performances / farewells and, in the case of our grade sixes, achievement exams. Compounding this complexity is that teachers themselves have a hard time saying good-bye to their students. That emotional bond between student and teacher goes both ways.
On an individual professional level things are incredibly stressful. Some teachers are looking at moving to new opportunities at other schools, or even securing a contract for the next school year. For those teachers happy to be staying at their current school, they could be faced with a change in school administration, the prospect of moving to a new grade; and for those who are staying in the same grade, their teammates, or assigned classroom may be different. Again, the cumulative nature of the amount of change over a very short period of time has a significant and powerful impact on our teachers.
We know where our parents are coming from too and understand that your life will look very different at the end of June. For working parents, the prospect of finding two-month childcare can be certainly daunting. Of course it’s not even just about childcare. You want to provide your child with exciting and stimulating opportunities which means summer camps. Finding the right summer camp for the right price can take time to organize, and then you need to hope that the camp isn’t full. For many, vacation may be looming and this brings further organization, time commitment and another big financial layout. At home you’re also managing the emotional change in your child (see above) and of course all of this is happening at a time when spring sports and activities are winding down - including competition season and playoffs. Add in evening school events, and your own work commitments seem like they take a backseat in June as well. Many nights just getting dinner on the table and sitting down to eat it can seem like a parenting win. The saving grace is that you’re mere days away from not having to pack daily lunches, and doesn’t it seem like summer break is worth it for that alone? Moving back to the teacher perspective to connect that the vast majority of our teachers are busy parents too.
Overall, it’s pretty clear that June is no cake-walk for anyone. Students, teachers and families are going full tilt. For teachers, the payoff for making it through this busy month isn’t what you might think. Whereas the pending summer break can been seen as the reward, the real reward is seeing our students off in the right way and celebrating the end of another successful year together.
I hope that some of my teacher colleagues and parents may comment based on their experiences and feelings through this hectic month. Sorry to the break between posts. It has indeed been a busy time for me for all the reasons listed above.
A blog post one year in the waiting, and decades in the making.
I would like to share some thoughts about a life with my first teacher - my dad.
Just like any young boy, I loved spending time with my dad. There was no need for any rewards because time with dad was reward enough. My earliest memories involved him taking me for a walk down to the creek near our apartment with my little sister in tow. I had sweet rubber boots and an even sweeter one-piece “creek suit” and was free to roam about wherever I wanted. I made dams and sent stick ships down the creek to my amusement. Minutes seemed like hours in those days. We visited all of the parks around the city too. Whenever there was a new park we were early visitors. I couldn’t get enough. And my dad wasn’t the type to sit on the sidelines. He chased my sister and I all around, and encouraged us to be fearless of heights and new challenges. I never heard "don't do that" or "get down from there".
As I got older, we did all those goofy things that most boys and their dads do. We would exit a building and immediately start racing to the car – first one to touch it won (I don’t think I ever did). Other days we would be playing catch and my dad would drop a wicked curveball, or if he really wanted to show off, would fire a heater right down the pipe and into my glove. Sometimes he would show me the power of the short punch, holding his fist inches from my shoulder before thundering in and then calmly asking me to give it a go and pop him back. My attempt always seemed to hurt my small fist more than it did his muscular shoulder.
Spending time with dad almost always involved a trip to downtown. Compared to metropolitan cities, downtown Thunder Bay wasn't much, but to us it was everything and it seemed like my dad knew everyone in town. We were always running into people he knew, and each time we would stop to talk to everyone he would say “hey, you remember my boy, right?” and I remember those big, large men stopping to shake my hand, tussle my hair and perhaps even reach inside their pockets to hand me “two-bits”. Ultimately we’d end up at the Arthur Café where I would be treated to fries with gravy and a coke. I recall my dad walking by tables and grabbing cheques off his friends’ tables and carrying them up to the register and taking care of them. “I got it,” he would say.
On top of this all, my dad was the best hockey player I knew (soooo fast), and just seemed to be that kind of athlete that could try something and just be a natural at it. In his 40s he decided to take on something new, a triathalon, and completed it almost completely on will and natural athletic ability.
As I got older our relationship changed in the ways that they do as kids become teenagers. “Time with dad” just became less of a priority as I explored my independence and time with friends. My dad just rolled with it, but continued to give me what I needed. You got some pocket money? Gas in the tank? Car running ok? He came to watch all my high school basketball games and was always a happy spectator, standing in the back and taking it all in. That pride carried over into University where he always made sure my tuition and books were taken care of. Just like at the Arthur Café, he was still grabbing cheques, but this time they were mine.
Throughout his life as my dad, Tom Fero made his living on the docks of the Thunder Bay waterfront. As a Graintrimmer, his job was to load grain from the harbour elevators on to the lake freighters which would come up the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay from all around the world. As a key break-of-bulk point for prairie wheat, Thunder Bay was a busy place. I knew enough to know that this wasn’t always easy work. Winters in Thunder Bay were bad enough, but a winter on the waterfront was a savage environment of its own. I remember the cold, snow, driving wind and rain, and thinking “Dad is working outside? In this?” I would lie in bed, listening to the intense thunder (the city was appropriately named) and staying partially awake listening for the door to open signalling me that dad was home safe and it was ok to go to sleep. I don’t remember my dad missing a day of work in his life.
This post could not be complete without recognizing that my dad, for all his beautiful ways did have his share of shortcomings. However, like most things with dad, this too had a way of turning itself into a teaching moment and I learned from the person closest to me that not everyone is perfect.
From the tense I have been writing in, you can surely tell where this post is heading. It was just over a year ago that I lost my dad. The tough, athletic, unbreakable man I knew and loved was stopped suddenly by heart failure. In his final days my dad was able to pass quietly, surrounded by the love of those closest to him and under the watchful eye of my beautiful sister who was his faithful sentinel, refusing to leave his side over days and nights. He didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him, and used his fading words to only ask others how they were doing, and how life was for them.
Losing a parent is tragically unbearable and I know many others have been unwillingly forced to manage these times as well. I’ve had my tears and my dark moments, but I hold the best thoughts closely. When I think of my dad, I smile. I smile because my memory can easily transport me. When I close my eyes...
I still hear the slow trickle of the creek by the apartment.
I still feel the bony arch of my back as I sneak past dad’s tag on the park.
I still sense that anticipation that our next race to the car would be mine.
My hand stings from the fastball, and the shoulder from the short punch.
I still taste the fries with gravy.
I still see his hair flowing from his helmet as he streaks down the right wing.
I still feel that sense of comfort afforded when the front door opened after a cold, rainy night.
He’s always standing quietly in the background at my game.
I always have pocket money. The gas tank is always full. The car runs fine.
I will never forget looking into his beautiful blue eyes and sharing our final farewell: speaking the words “I love you” and hearing the same in return.
My first teacher was mine from birth. While he never set out to teach me one lesson in particular, he ended up teaching me almost everything I needed to know. There will always be a lot to smile about.
I try not to overestimate my role as school principal. I know that it's the teachers and support staff that do much of the heavy lifting in the building on a day-to-day basis. Through my years as an administrator, I know there are benchmark moments in the school year where I am asked to make key leadership decisions that will strongly influence the life of the school and those same teachers and staff which commit so much. One of these moments is budget time.
I highly respect the way our district allows principals to make the important decisions for their schools through the budget process. The simple explanation of the process looks like this - the school is allocated funds based on a variety of factors, but primarily projected student enrolment. From this allocation the principal then leads the decisions regarding staffing for the school. The entire district knows this as RAM time (with RAM an acronym of Resource Allocation Method) and planning begins in earnest in April.
While teachers and staff have an understanding of the process, it does not make times any less worrisome. If the school population is likely to stay the same, staffing will likely look similar. If population is projected to increase, there is a good chance that additional staff will be hired. Finally, if a school population is on the decline, hard staffing decisions need to be made. Staff will often begin to predict the budget implications and it's impact on their position almost immediately.
As a leader, these are the difficult times. As I have talked about in my previous blog posts, the school staff become a family of our own. Everyone puts their heart and soul in their work for our students and school. We come to know each other as professionals, and as friends. While I am fortunate to receive amazing counsel from my administrative team, it is ultimately the principal that signs off on all budget decisions. I'm not going to lie, these difficult decisions are heart-wrenching. In the end, I rely on some key principles to guide me through these times:
1) Students First - the first step is to work with the current staff and school administrative team to determine the needs of the students moving into the next school year. Key elements in this stage are ensuring class sizes start at right numbers, and that students with complex needs have support staff available to assist.
2) Listen to the Staff - beginning as early as February we begin to analyze school needs as a staff. It often occurs past the mid-way point of the school year, which is enough time to determine the value of decisions made for the current year. No one knows better than the staff what needs to stay the same and what needs to change for the next year.
3) Staff over Stuff - when you value relationships as part of student learning, you know that investing in the relationships and the people that build them is essential. At the school level, we can often look at alternative options such as limiting copying and paper use, or forgoing tech purchases, in order to keep the staff that matter at our school.
4) Deliver News Directly - when bad news is coming it becomes evident right away and everyone knows it. There is no need to delay the delivery of news. My way of working is to talk with staff directly in a one-on-one manner. I also don't delay the news or "sugar coat" what's coming. I say what needs to be said as straight as I can and, if needed, provide the rationale for school decisions.
5) Support Staff Through the Process - Delivering bad news isn't the last step, and in my view it's just the beginning. Frequent check-ins afterward are important, and it's even more essential to find out what the preferences of that staff member are toward their next steps. From there, I try and reach out to colleagues in order to gauge the possibility of a match for our displaced staff. I remain on their side, always.
Being a leader in good times is pretty easy. I've been in the position to add staff throughout this process and to ensure everyone at your school has a guaranteed position and to welcome in new people into the fold can be exciting and fun. Leading through a lean budget isn't easy at all. As I muddle through the series of difficult decisions the common refrain from friends is "oh well, that's why you get paid the big bucks". I am fully aware that my decisions impact people in both their professional and personal lives and I don't take that responsibility lightly. My only hope is that my guiding principles make the process a bit easier for those impacted.
I think I have always been a pretty busy guy. When I use the work busy, I don't mean it in the sense of feeling overwhelmed with life, but I mean it in the way in which I always seem to be able to find ways to busy myself. I don't relate to boredom, and I don't think I ever have.
As a kid, I could always find something to do. I wrote about some of my experiences in my December post, Play, but I want to expand on that. When it comes to dealing with boredom, I think I was always able to handle things. If I was on my own I had Lego, Adventure People, Hot Wheels, and lots of action figures, boats, cars, planes, and other toys. In my mind I can easily revisit those memories and when I think of it now I marvel at the creative scenes and situations I could invent in my mind. Oh, and man was I the MASTER of sound effects. You can bet that every car hitting a jump, or a plane taking off had a wicked sound effect with it. I built roads and garages. I gave my action figures names and I invented entire back stories for them. There were good guys and bad guys and they all had motives. And, of course, no play scene was complete without sharks and / or lava.
As a parent, I loved those moments with my own kids, and could insert myself pretty easily into their free play. Both of them seemed to inherit that sense of creativity and fun. My recent curiosity relates both to my own kids, and my students. The question for today's world is do children even have the chance to be bored anymore? Truth is, since they have discovered their screens, I don't think my own kids have ever had to deal with real boredom.
Wrestling with boredom is not an original thought. It's been documented in many ways, but when related to my own context and experience it becomes all too real. I think my experiences were most accurately captured in Clive Thompson's article in Wired magazine and as I read this I found myself nodding my head an awful lot.
Recently, I have come to know boredom. A broken ankle can do that. And while I am a bit too old to pull out my Lego and action figures, I still find that my mind activates in the same ways it did in my youth. I can "feel" how boredom leads to creativity. So, what is the message for adults? Boredom can be ok for kids. Let them be bored, and don't rescue them from this time. Let it happen, and see what emerges. When they say "I'm bored" respond as my parents did, "go find something to do."
What are your experiences with boredom? How did you deal with it?
"Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it's a conversation." - Joe Bower
I was thankful that I had the opportunity to learn from Joe Bower a couple years ago during a YYCEdCamp event hosted at Robert Thirsk High School. Joe was a captivating presenter who brought everyone in the room into his talk, In this way he led by example. His passion was assessment, and he tackled a controversial topic head on. What is the purpose of a zero, an incomplete assignment, or a failed test?
Like many teachers in the audience, I had mixed feelings. Part of me believed in the premise of "you get what you get and you don't get upset" mindset. You may have come to know this from your parents too. It's the mindset that hard work and commitment trumps all. Simply put, if you didn't achieve your goals, you must not have put the effort in. Failed test? Study more. Missed assignment? Make better choices with your time. Some may have come to know this as Tough Love.
Another part of me was a bit more practical. After all, isn't being a teacher is about really trying to understand what a student knows, and finding the right ways to figure this out. This mindset is a little bit different. Failed test? Let's look at your responses and redo it. Missed assignment? How can I help you, and when can you get it in? Tough Love advocates may call this Coddling.
This topic brings out a LOT of passion in both teachers and parents and it's become a landmark discussion for the state of the world we're living in. Even in reading this, I am sure you've already drawn your line in the sand.
For me, after my time with Joe, I realized that having a student have a test re-do, or allowing a student to have an extension on an assignment wasn't "giving in" or coddling, it was good teaching in action. Here is what dealing with zero, or responsive assessment allows a teacher to do:
1) Connect - a failed test or missed assignment is a chance for the teacher to really get to know the student. It is the "conversation" that Joe refers to. As a teacher I could look into the results and identify the gaps in learning and, if required, re-teach them. In the case of a missed assignment, I could make the assessment as to whether that student didn't understand, have the time or materials, or just have too many other things on the go to complete it in a timely manner.
2) Reflect - I had to learn to see a failed test as an indicator to my teaching and not necessarily the student's learning. As I looked at things more and more through this lens I began to recognize patterns, and these patterns identified areas for improvement in my teaching.
3) Inspire - No one, especially students, respond well to failure. In my experience failure only leads to more failure through self-doubt, frustration, and ultimately a lack of desire to persevere. When a student knows that you care about them, and that you will provide them with the support they need, you can truly inspire them to achieve. You can avoid all the negativity and literally turn nothing into something.
My son recently received his driver's licence on his first try. In talking with many adults since this, everyone seems shocked that he got in on his first attempt. Story after story revealed how many times some of our family and friends needed to repeat their road test in order to pass. When you think about it, some professions, including law, medicine and engineering, allow multiple attempts to test for professional designation. Where does the Tough Love apply in these cases?
The truth is that we adults need the same second chances for our success that we seem to be willing to rip from our children/students. We can learn from our failed tests and missed assignments and go on to be successful. As teachers, we have to assess each situation one student, and one conversation at a time.
My short little blog post can not do this intense topic full justice. Joe Bower worked hard to spread the word to abolish grading. Much of his work is captured on his blog which is still active. Please visit his page, peruse the links, and share your thoughts. It remains a divisive topic in education: http://joe-bower.blogspot.ca/p/abolishing-grading.html
It is always great when you find a good crossover clip - one which allows both teacher and parent to understand a concept without too much eduspeak. I have loved watching these related videos posted by Rick Wormeli and hope you might as well.
I still recall the moment I realized I was doing it wrong. I was in my second year of teaching and was sitting in my classroom after school. I had been hard at it and needed a break so I went down the hall to visit with my team partner and found out she was gone for the night. I continued on to try and find someone else to connect with. All the lights were off. I checked the clock. It was just after 7:15 pm. I wondered what the heck I was still doing at school.
Every adult knows that feeling no matter what profession you're in. For teachers, it begins after the students leave for the day. You check in with your colleagues, share a few laughs. Then you fill your water bottle and grab a snack. Maybe there is a staff or professional learning meeting. You return to your classroom. It's nice and quiet. Time to get some work done.
Here's what "getting work done" looks like for a teacher struggling with work-life balance. You start by cleaning up the classroom from the chaos of the day. You re-organize a bit, respond to a few writing journals, and give some feedback on the math assignments that you said you would do three days ago. Only after these little things are done do you begin thinking about tomorrow. You thumb through your rough plans and the curricular outcomes and begin to prepare. You start searching online and then you magically find that "must do" activity. Then you put everything else aside and start to gather materials for this latest and greatest thing. Of course the materials aren't around or exactly where you would expect them to be (where the heck would you even find litmus paper?) so you go online to find out where to get it and you make a plan to go there right after school to pick it up. Suddenly, it's after 7:00 pm and you still don't know exactly what you're going to do tomorrow and your whole day hinges on the faint hope that Walmart sells litmus paper.
Thankfully, I had the presence to recognize that this could not continue day after day. I knew if this was going to be my reality as a teacher, that I would burn out. I also knew that over time I would grow bitter and resentful over all the extra hours and how my work-life balance was askew.
I had to work smarter. I had to be more efficient. I had to take control of my processes to take back the extra hours.
If you are reading this and realize that this is you, here are some simple tips that helped me through those times:
Plan the Right Way - If you are still planning for tomorrow over hours at the end of each day then you are doing it wrong too. You need to create long, medium and short range plans that will carry you through days and weeks at a time. There are many ways to do this effectively, but your gauge of your effectiveness is simply the way you feel about your preparedness when you leave for the day or when you wake up in the morning. If you're anxious about your readiness then you need to keep searching for planning models that will allow you to feel better about this.
Set a Limit and Stay Within It - On average, I was at the school until after 6:00 pm every day. I told myself that if I could leave by 5:30 pm, that I could earn back an extra half hour. Instead of leaving at 6, I could be home by that time. Eventually, I was able to move that to 5:00 pm and that is still my target time to this day.
Make a Date For Yourself - Take one day of the week and book something for yourself. Make it for 4:30 or 5:00 so you know you will need to leave to get there on time. For me, I joined a Wednesday night golf league. Pick something that you love to do but don't have time for and make it a priority. Put it in your calendar, tell your colleagues about your plans, and make it your routine.
Take the Team Approach - As independent as you want to be, you need to have a team to work efficiently. The best teams plan, prepare, and follow-up together. They share the load of the hard work that needs to be done and instinctually find the ebb and flow of the team dynamic. Work with your team to divide and conquer so you're not all doing it on your own.
Talk Less, Learn More - Now, as a principal, one of my main feedback points to my teachers is that they're spending too much time with up-front teaching and not giving enough time for students to engage in learning. It might sound crazy, but I would often script out my talking points for my lesson. I was making it about me and not the learning. Use your time effectively to set up the learning intentions for the day and find a way to get the students working quickly. They will get more from you working alongside them as they do a task than they might in just listening to you explain it all. There is a time for up-front direct teaching, but pick your spots.
Apple Units Aren't the Answer - While preserving the "Apple Unit" to revisit year after year will make you feel comfortable and secure, this simply is not best current practice. If you're finding that you're squirrelling away binders and boxes of stuff to re-use, don't.
Copying is a Hint - Take a look at how many photocopies you're creating, and ask yourself what is the purpose they serve. As a teacher, one of the most arduous tasks I would undertake in preparation and planning would be the search for the perfect "blackline master". If I couldn't find one, I would make one. I can guarantee you're spending way too much time on this aspect of your planning, which will only be a very small part of the desired outcomes. When I made the move to notebooks and journals I took that daily task off my plate.
Talk to Someone - Work-Life balance problems are real, and you're not alone. Burnout is also real, and it happens to those who can't manage it until it's too late. If you find yourself struggling with this and unable to cope with it, please seek help. You might want to approach your school administrative team. Believe me, we've all been there. Identifying this a a problem for yourself is often the first step toward change. If you want to keep things private (often the case with those struggling with work-life balance), please seek help from your doctor.
I don't claim to have a perfect work-life balance. Part of my problem is that I really do love my job a lot and enjoy being at work. What I do feel that I do effectively is recognize when things are getting out of control. I'm not afraid to set things down for the day and just wrap it up. I can now navigate the flow of the school year and can adjust the peak times and low times (there aren't too many of those) more efficiently. It's still a work in progress for me, but one thing I know for sure is that my weekly golf game awaits and spring can't come soon enough.
The irony of the fact that I am composing and posting this on the weekend is not lost on me ;-)
One of our guiding values at the Calgary Board of Education is that Public Education Serves the Common Good. I share this value and love that public education is for everyone.
As a principal, I am asked to contemplate my commitment to this value on a daily basis. Sometimes it comes in the form of responding to parents asking me about "That Kid in their kid's class". You know That Kid. He's the one who talks way too much and can be distracting to others. Or maybe she's the one who randomly swears. That Kid may also be a bit of a bully sometimes, or perhaps even a thief.
We all know That Kid.
The truth is That Kid, like all kids, has a story.
That kid who talks too much actually has ADHD. His parents have chosen not to medicate him because his father was medicated as a child and his opinion was the drug has had negative and lasting repercussions. They are currently trying dietary changes and herbal remedies before pursuing trial medication.
The little girl who randomly swears was recently adopted by a loving foster family after years in other foster homes. While in the care of one of these other foster homes she lived with some older children who swore at her, telling her to "f#%k off" whenever she came near them or their toys. Thankfully, she's now getting some help from a counsellor.
The bully is looking for a bit of attention because his single mom is working two jobs to make a good life for her and her only son. The thief spent the first seven years of her life in a refugee camp where the only way to survive was to steal. The bully meets regularly with a play therapist who is helping him to make positive choices. Through a charity organization, the thief recently received the first toy she could call her own.
These stories may sound dramatic, but they're not. These are real stories encountered in my life as both a teacher and principal. My response to the parent asking me about "That kid in their kid's class" often comes out as what might sound like a stock, canned answer like this: "we know that this is a concern, but we assure you that we are working with the teacher, the family and others to ensure school is a safe, positive environment for everyone." I know this can come off as dismissive, but it's not. I can't relay the details of That Kid's story to you because, quite frankly, it's not my story to tell. These stories come to me in confidence from the parents of That Kid who help me to understand what's happening in their child's life.
The inquiring parent doesn't get to see the work behind the scenes. That inclusive, detailed work involving meetings, email exchanges and phone calls between the teacher / school and the family of That Kid. They don't get to experience the ways in which the teacher has planned out his or her day to make sure That Kid is accommodated and successful. They don't get to feel the positive response, love and respect from the classmates of That Kid who want nothing more than for them to be happy.
And what we don't get to see is the tears of the parents of That Kid because they don't want their child to cause trouble at school. We don't experience their sleepless nights as they wonder what tomorrow might bring. We don't get to feel the anguish that occurs when they see an email pop up from the teacher, or the school number appears on their call display.
With all this said, I would be the first to say that continual disruption, swearing, bullying and stealing have no place at school and need to be handled directly. What I do know is that your child's teacher is often the first to know and the first to respond. You can bet that by the time you have come to see the principal to talk about That Kid, that we are very likely already on top of things. Just as we want the best for That Kid, we also want what's best for Your Kid.
Public education, after all, is for everyone.
The family was forced to divide and conquer this weekend, leaving my son and I holding down the fort at home with the dog. It probably comes as no surprise, but on these occasions my son and I often use this situation as a good excuse to slip away for a burger and some father-son bonding time. As we were enjoying our burgers together and I was contemplating this week's blog post, I realized how passionate many feel about burgers. I mean, who doesn't have their favourite burger place? I think it's something about the burger place that connects with people. Well, I got thinking about my local favourites and wondered if this topic might spark some commentary.
Before I offer my list, I have to qualify a couple things. First of all, when I rank my favourite burgers I am considering the following:
1) I'm looking at the traditional cheeseburger of the joint. I don't really go for the fancy "Smokehouse" or anything with fruit or some kind of gimmick. I like a regular cheeseburger with a good compliment of fixings.
2) Size doesn't matter. In fact, I am learning to appreciate the smaller, tastier burger of late. I find a good double burger to work, but anything meatier takes away from the experience for me. Also, I won't get bacon on any burger larger than a single.
3) The atmosphere of the joint can't hurt the burger, but it can certainly help. Also, the significance of the place to me can adjust some ranking in this case.
Here are The Passionate Principal's Top Ten Burgers in Calgary:
10) Boogies Burgers - for many a staple in their top three. I have to admit, I've only recently tried it and was a bit underwhelmed. Cracks the top 10 because I trust my friends and there must be more to it so I'll give it another shot.
9) Peter's Drive In - Mostly here for the iconic nature of the experience. While most like the milkshakes, a Peter's burger is my favourite part of the visit. I also like how the single is really a single plus.
8) Fatburger - My feelings about Fatburger fluctuate from time to time. I love the hand-made patty, and a single is way more than filling. Extra points for choice of complimentary fixings.
7) Five Guys - Like Fatburger, the Five Guys hand-made burger is awesome. I feel it's a bit more consistent and I love their basic menu. No "Hula Burgers". Just burgers.
6) Earl's - May have bounced off the list if they didn't commit to Alberta Beef, but the Earl's experience is always good because it's almost always a family event.
5) Regrub - Charging hard up the list. Again, often overlooked because of the fancy milkshakes, the Regrub burger is so so good, and so much better than that sweet stuff. I like the odd and varied patty sizes from burger to burger. You get the sense that the owners want you to feel like you're really sitting in the family kitchen eating a home made mama burger.
4) Smashburger - A nice addition to Calgary chains. Best part about Smash is that their burgers are so tasty. Maybe a bit salty for some, but their gimmick of "smashing" the patty really works for me. I find it to be the perfect size.
3) Thomsons - My annual stop at the Hyatt lounge for a burger during Teacher's Convention is a tradition with my wife (who is also a teacher) and me. Great burger, complimented by the best burger pickle around. What makes getting a burger even more special is they often sell out on the Thursday of convention. It's that good.
2) Clive Burger - I don't often hear Clive mentioned by many, but it's a must-do. Again, like Five Guys, a simple menu, so you know it's all about the burgers. Smallish, but totally filling burger and you always know you're getting 100% natural, antibiotic and hormone free Alberta Beef. You can taste that awesomeness.
1) White Spot - Despite the fact that I am usually about 15 years younger than most visitors to White Spot, this is my go-to and something I look forward to. My family knows that when dad gets to pick a dinner out, we're heading to White Spot. I love the Double-Double and the sauce and great pickles complete the epic experience. Call me old-fashioned, but if you haven't really hit this burger, make a point of doing so. It's also a big hit with my father-in-law and his senior's group.
South Street Burger Co. (just a bit too pre-fab for my tastes. Too focused on satisfying many tastes. Just make one good burger)
Burger Inn (constant location changes pushed this off the list. Was probably top three in the 90s)
McDonalds Big Mac (still the "go to" after a late night out)
Note that I have yet to try the following recommended Calgary spots - Naina's (although I hear their signature is a stuffed burger, possibly making them ineligible based on my criteria), Buchanan's (likely my next stop), Vagabond (the pictures and reviews have me very intrigued), Burger 320 (new on my radar, but recommended by many friends)
Bonus List - Top Burgers Outside of Calgary
In and Out Burger - one of the highlights of my trips to Vegas or California. Cheap and awesome.
Cheeseburger in Paradise - Waterfront Lahaina, Maui. Say no more.
McKeller Confectionary, Thunder Bay - the original greasy burger. Hometown version of the Coney Island Hot Dog. You probably gotta grow up with it to love it.
Dana Clara / Patti Fero Burger - my family always tells me that you can't find a better burger than at home, and every time they step up, they back that up.
I can not wait for the reactions and suggestions. There is no way that anyone reading this list will think that I've got it all right. Please feel free to comment with your feedback. Oh, and I bet you're all hungry now. See you at White Spot.
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.