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Tuesday 12 February 2013

Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context

Dr. Garry McKinnon

It has been a very challenging and invigorating experience for me to prepare this series of blogs on the Alberta Education Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders. I have enjoyed the opportunity to share my thoughts on school leadership with the school administrators involved in the Alberta Association of Public Charter schools project on school leadership during this current school year which was funded by Alberta Education. The challenge was to explore school leadership using the Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders as a framework through a series of workshops, administrator exchanges, personal reflections, and the exchanging of ideas through blogs and informal dialogue.
The goal was to develop a deeper understanding of school leadership in the context of realities encountered on a day-to-day basis by school leaders and to identify insights which could be shared with other school leaders in regard to making the Alberta Education framework for school leadership a living document. From my perspective it has been a very good process and I have gained some valuable insights through the dialogue and feedback I have received on my blogs. I must emphasize that in writing the blogs my goal was to reflect on my experiences in school leadership over the past 44 years and to generate ongoing dialogue. My blogs on the seven competencies for school leadership have been posted on the Calgary Science School website Connect! Blog and the blogger website which was created for the participants in the Alberta Charter School leadership project. All of these blogs as well as some others I have written on school leadership are available at . In this blog I will make reference to the seventh of the school leadership competencies. I welcome your feedback as I continue my journey of developing a deeper understanding of school leadership.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Take a Chance: Meditations on Being an Instructional Leader from an Admitted Educational Oddball

"When one is uncomfortable, one will learn,"  - Buddha

I don't usually like to open a piece of writing with someone else's words because, honestly, I am pretty fond of my own.  Given that it's Buddha I am referencing, though, I think it's fair to give him the floor.  While the above quote is almost certainly apocryphally attributed to the enlightened one, the sentiment is one that we will all recognize and will have struggled with in our practices.

Anything I (or, likely, you) have ever learned came to me as the result of discomfort.  Something was wrong with the status quo at the time and I had to learn new skills or information to move past it.  Theory lovers will recognize this as cognitive dissonance and about finding the zone of proximal development.  That's good and I appreciate the place of learning theory in this discussion.  When faced with the realities of being an instructional leader in school, though, you are likely to agree that neither Vygotsky or Buddha are the first things that pop to mind.  For the purpose of this discussion, something far more practical than lofty quotes is required.

Being an instructional leader can (and, in my opinion, should) be taken literally if it is to be realized.  The word "leader" denotes going first, taking point, being in front.  This is inherently risky and takes courage.  It requires the willingness to declare that the status quo is not enough to get to the vision and to try out new things, even if it doesn't work.  It requires guts, perseverance, and heart.  It does not, however, require you to have a specific title, position, rank, or age.  Anyone in a school can be an instructional leader if they are willing to take the risks that follow the choice to become one.

So, with that fluffy stuff behind us, how best to go about realizing this position?  It's easy: surround yourself with instructors, and good ones at that.  Another aphorism that I won't even attempt to reference tells us that, if you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.  Treat instructional leadership in the same way: take classes, in anything, and look at instruction that inspires you.  Surround yourself with people that make you want to be better than you are and watch what they do when they make you feel that way.  The more you see, the more you will be able to implement in your practice.

Don't have time to take a class?  Read a book full of ideas that get you fired up.  Teach yourself yoga from Youtube videos.  Do what you must to unbalance yourself; when you adjust, you will have learned something new.  You will also be in a better position to empathize with (and, therefore, lead) those in your charge who, because they are at different places along their paths, may more regularly be experiencing cognitive dissonance that you are.

To be a lifelong learner, one must be in the headspace of a student all their lives.  To be an instructional leader follows from this inherently unbalanced position.  How?  The leader is always going ahead, taking the risk, trying new things and showing others the way.  At it's very core (again, literally), this is precisely the essence of education: leading out of the darkness.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Managing School Operations and Resources

by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent

Several months ago, I made a commitment to share some insights on school leadership based on my experiences in various roles in education through the years, using the Alberta Education Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders document as a framework. Specifically I made reference to the seven leadership competencies in the document and I continue with some thoughts on the sixth leadership dimension which makes reference to the school leader’s role in managing school operations and resources to ensure a safe, caring and effective learning environment. The descriptors related to this dimension highlight the importance of good planning and organization and the effective management of the physical and financial resources of the school and ensuring the school operations align with legal frameworks such as provincial legislation and policy and jurisdictional policy directives and initiatives. It is emphasized in the document that principles of teaching, learning and student development should guide all management decisions.

Monday 26 November 2012

CGS Assessment Journey (so far)

Embodying Visionary Leadership
Valda Harris - Vice Principal

Our teachers have always been committed to wise practice with the student at the heart of every decision. Working in collaborative teams with subject area expertise built in, our girls are challenged and engaged in their learning through the exploration of questions that lead to interdisciplinary studies of depth, breadth and interest.  Conceptual understanding is the goal.  Throughout our last school year our assessment teacher leaders led an ongoing discussion about our assessment practices.  Three times a year, percentage and grade based report cards overshadowed powerful narratives carefully written to describe each girl as a learner within that reporting term.  We had noticed for years that the weeks leading to report cards were ones in which anxiety in our girls escalated along with all of the behaviours that accompany that anxiety.  Girls worked for the mark rather than the learning. Interdisciplinary learning experiences seemed to freeze as we stopped to ensure that a mark could be assigned to the work, temporarily putting inquiry and interdisciplinary exploration back into the silos of disciplines - and often, that which could be assigned marks in this way was assessing lower level learning.   It was inauthentic and lacked the congruence of the rest of the programming we were providing.  Our marking system was not able to accurately assess that which we truly valued and worked daily to develop:  deeper understanding and the ability to transfer that understanding to new situations and other disciplines.

Thursday 22 November 2012

The Struggle to be an Instructional Leader

by Darrell Lonsberry - Principal

I don’t know that there can be any debate that the primary responsibility of school administrators is to provide sound instructional leadership. Certainly, this aspect of administration is recognized in the Alberta Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders. Our own superintendent, Dr. Garry McKinnon discussed the importance of this aspect of school leadership in a previous blog postAdditionally, I haven’t yet met a school administrator who doesn’t want to make a positive difference in the quality of teaching and learning in their school through working directly with teachers. With all of the reasons why school administrators must be focusing on providing sound instructional leadership, there continues to be significant restrictions and limitations in place that often prohibit leaders from realizing their potential as instructional leaders. I suffer that same sense of frustration from time to time as the Principal of the Calgary Science School.

Friday 16 November 2012

Why Would Anyone Ever Want to be a School Principal?

by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent

The seven school leadership competencies and accompanying descriptors in the draft Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders in Alberta document provides a comprehensive overview of the expectations for principals and assistant (vice, associate) principals. Principals are accountable for the demonstration of all of the competencies throughout their careers while assistant, associate, vice principals are accountable for the demonstration of those competencies that are directly related to their assigned role and leadership designation.

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships - The Fundamental Building Block for Learning and Leading

by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent

In a recent conversation with a group of realtors about the challenge of selling a home, a common theme which I have heard many times was reinforced - it's all about location, location, location. If I were to identify one element which is fundamental in all aspects of teaching and leadership I would say that it is all about, relationships, relationships, relationships. In fact, I believe that wherever you see people gathered in work situations, socially and/or their family lives, the ability to establish authentic relationships of mutual respect is the key ingredient. In schools the comment, "you need to reach the child to teach the child" highlights the fundamental importance of relationship building. It is not always easy but you need to find a way to connect with each and every student.
There are two pieces of advice I was given before I began teaching which have impacted me through the years. The first gem of wisdom is to always recognize that "each individual is unique and special and everyone has a story to tell". This has profoundly impacted how I deal with people and has caused me to celebrate opportunities to build positive relationships with everyone I encounter. I found the second gem of wisdom to be equally significant, especially in dealing with difficult people - "the student who is the most difficult to like is the one who needs you the most". Teachers can't give up on any students. Teaching and leading is all about finding ways to connect with people and to have what I describe as, " value-added" relationships in which they are better off because of our interactions with them.