After the magic

Two years ago, in mid December, my husband overheard this conversation while waiting at the bus stop with our kids:

Jacob (9 years old):  You know what the kids in my class have been saying?

Kathleen (7 years old): What?

Jacob:  Santa’s not real.  It’s our Mom and Dad.

Kathleen:  Jacob.  Do you really think our Mom and Dad fly all over  the world, sliding up and down chimneys, delivering presents, in one night? I don’t think so.

Now Kathleen says everything with a certain feistiness, and as usual, she convinced her brother that she was right.

This story really struck me; Kathleen had this incredible way of sizing up her parents in that statement – we must be too busy, too cheap and too selfish to make such a trip around the world for the sake of other children.

Last spring, before Easter, Kathleen was in the back seat of our car when she told me that she lost a tooth.  I said that she’d have to stick it under her pillow at night.  There was a long silence before she quietly said:  “I lost it yesterday, actually, and put it under my pillow last night.  I know the tooth fairy is you and Dad”. Yikes.  How did this one get so clever?  I always think my job as a parent is to ask questions and listen.  She worked through her thoughts and finally concluded, “And I’m guessing the Easter Bunny is the same.” That night, I asked her about Santa. “If I don’t believe in a magical tooth fairy or bunny, do you think I believe a man in a red suit flies around the world?”  Her attitude was back.

So with Christmas only a few days away, and with Kathleen’s new knowledge about Santa, there is no magic in our house.  But I have been struck by what has emerged instead.  Last weekend, Kathleen woke up and told us that she was going to make cookies all by herself and give them to our neighbours.  She worked all morning, then put four cookies (only four each!) on a paper plate and wrapped them in saran.  You have no idea how much I wanted to add additional cookies or chocolates or decorations to those plates… but I resisted, and off she went to deliver her gifts.

When I asked Jacob what he was most looking forward to, he said he “couldn’t wait” to see Kathleen unwrap her gift.

It seems that without Santa, the kids are just as excited.  I almost prefer them knowing that Kevin and I chose their special gifts.  Is it selfish of me to not want to give credit to a man in a red suit? Am I hopeful that our daughter will think differently about her parents this year? I think it is more a desire for me to share with them the real joy of generosity.

May your holidays be filled with special memories, and may you enjoy being generous with those you love.

In praise of champions

My favorite English teacher passed away last week. Mrs. Wilkins was a powerful woman at Cathedral Girls School. I remember a moment in grade nine when she used the word “labyrinth” in a sentence then called on me to state its meaning. Now, I was a classic good girl – well-behaved, smart and somewhat timid so when I took a guess, and got it wrong, I was expecting the usual “good try” response. Instead she did something that no one had ever done to me before. She looked right at me, then she screwed up her face and shouted as if astonished…. “NO”. She sure got my attention.

I always got this feeling from her that she knew I was capable of more, and she wasn’t going to let me get away with less. And I delivered – I worked harder for her than any other teacher and I wrote poetry, short stories, and even a play on nuclear disarmament that was performed at a student assembly.

Out of the blue I wrote to her this summer to thank her for her belief in me. I never heard back from her, and I was disappointed. I really considered myself her favorite.

Her obituary said, “She dedicated her life to teaching young people about the merits of the English language and encouraged them to succeed through language. She was proud of the accomplishments of her former students. We were proud that many approached her in later years to thank her”.

Clearly Mrs. Wilkins had many many favorites, which is of course, the secret to great teachers, that they can make everyone feel special.

So in honour of Mrs. Wilkins’s love of language, and more importantly, in honour of her belief in me and others, I am using a word that is not in my Collins dictionary (although it does appear in an on-line version): championing.

I attended a Klingenstein session called “24/​7 Learning Leadership on the Job”. I took notes on the traits of leaders: they demonstrate certain personal characteristics (empathy, intelligence, optimism, integrity and open-minded); they have a higher than normal work ethic; they show evidence of leadership interest (attend grad school, seek feedback, and volunteer for extra projects); and they have a high level of professional competence (organizational savvy, collaboration, instructional leader and good communicator).

But I was particularly interested in the difference between women and men in their approaches to leadership: many women don’t ask for feedback and they wait to be identified rather than ask for opportunities. Someone in the room said that women needed more than a mentor, they needed a champion. What’s the difference?

A champion is “a person who defends a person or cause”. In our setting, I think a champion is someone who is looking out for you, advocating for you privately, suggesting opportunities that are best for you, offering honest (even brutal!) feedback and who is a good listener…there are arguable many other traits…

I’ve spoken many times about the current leadership challenge – we have great people in our schools but not enough of them are ready to take on the top administrative jobs.

So we need a national initiative to be championing women and men. For starters, in addition to a module on Change Leadership, we are offering a Women and Leadership module at the spring LI in Montreal. I challenge each school to send someone.

Who is your champion? Who are you championing?

Check this out: Ideas worth spreading

One of the great things about my job is that I get to meet amazing people at the top of their game doing things that they love and are passionate about. Have you ever listened to someone speak and wanted to write down every single word they say? My desk is littered with notes from such occasions, on small notepads and on the backs of various programs and envelopes. While this is a great perk of my job, I also feel this incredible pressure to a) remember all of the good ideas and  b) share them without c) promoting any one school more than another.

blogged last week about a TED Talk. TED’s tagline is simple and catchy: “ideas worth spreading”. So this week, my hope is to capture some of what I think are ideas worth spreading…

First, a few great things about the Friends School of Baltimore. (Thanks to Matt Micciche, Head of School for hosting us, and to Courtenay Shrimpton from SAC for organizing this visit before the TABS conference)

  • No more Open Houses – instead you can “Lunch and Learn with the Head of School” and spend two hours seeing the school in action. They love this catered approach to today’s parents.
  • Their gardens are all native plants, and student art work is scattered throughout the school. The whole campus demonstrates their mission to “develop…creative strengths to make positive contributions to the world.”
  • As part of their examination of what qualities kids need in order to thrive in and shape their world, they invited 25 alum and parents who are ‘leaders in their fields and who are doing interesting things’ to spend two days at the school observing classes and meeting with faculty and parents.  They found this two day event to be a great launch to their work on developing their 21st century model for teaching and learning
  • They are committed to three components to service learning:  preparation, action and reflection.  There is a Service Learning Coordinator who ensures that students write about their service:  What did you do? So what? Now what?  All students are required to complete 50 hours of service by graduation – but they are only allowed to complete this in two locations.

Second, one of the keynotes at the TABS conference last week was William Deresiewicz from Yale who spoke about ‘Excellent Sheep’.  He eloquently argued that the university admissions process now shapes high schools and urged the audience to help today’s students to be genuinely passionate about ideas and risk-taking and imagination and courage. After meeting him, I enjoyed reading his most current article in The American Scholar: ‘Solitude and Leadership’.  This is a guy we will hear more from…mark my words…

Third, the New Hampton School is the first school (that I’ve seen!) to use a QR Code in its prospectus.   For anyone who is not as hip as I now am… a QR Code is a matrix barcode, readable by smartphones. It is supposedly the new thing, and you will start to notice these squares of black modules arranged in a pattern on white backgrounds.  You can scan the QR code and instantly link to related pages on websites.  Start to imagine that potential for e-marketing…

Finally, before the Governance presentation on Monday in Vancouver, Pat Bassett and I enjoyed dinner with the St George’s School Board and Leadership Team.  Pat gave a great example of innovative teaching that was new to me: What if you “flip” lessons and homework? Teachers create a video of their lessons and assign it for homework so students can watch at their leisure and as many times as needed.  Then class time is used to collaborate, ask questions of the teacher, create, etc.  How smart is this one?

These ideas are worth checking out, at least in my books… Anyone willing to share others? I know our schools are filled with teachers and administrators with ideas worth spreading.

Q: Where do good ideas come from?

A: My husband, Kevin.

He has this incredible ability to capture key ideas from books.  And nothing makes me happier than to savour his summaries.  He’s so good that I once carried on a conversation about Michael Pollan, and only later realized that I hadn’t actually read any of his books.

Kevin often recommends books that I should read, but I’ve learned that if I’m patient, he will end up telling me all about them. And I look forward to that. I consider his talent genius.  Why read Malcolm Gladwell, when Kevin can give me the highlights?

So when he mentioned Steven Johnson’Where Good Ideas Come From, I had my own great idea… wait for him to read it first.  But I was curious, and I am a Johnson fan, so I had an even better idea… google it.  Et voila!  Johnson was on TED Talks in September, and I was able to enjoy his summary of his book in 18:17 minutes.  That’s serious competition for Kevin.

Johnson studied times and places where there has been an unusual level of creativity and innovation. He found that the best ideas do not come from a lone eureka moment or a flash or an epiphany or any single thing.  There is no apple-falling-on-the-head for most ideas.  Instead he proves that the best ideas have long incubation periods – what he calls “the slow hunch” – and we need to share these and build on them.  He emphasizes the need to connect ideas.  Similar to Covey’s “abundance thinking” concept, he believes that chance favours the connected mind, and we need to spend more time connecting good ideas, not protecting them.

This is important for schools – how can we build better spaces that encourage the development of ideas?  Slate just did an interesting examination of the 21st century classroom.

But we are in the midst of big changes in our schools, and we need to focus on how to prepare kids for a future we cannot imagine where change is constant.  I see leadership teams and boards across the country asking the same big and exciting questions:

What are the skills and attitudes that our kids need? How do we get our teachers to embrace change and risk? In a world focused on performance and university admissions, how can we get our kids to be genuinely passionate about learning and life?  How do we tell our story – that we are kind and caring places where we know and love our students? How do we ensure that a variety of kids can access our schools?

I have a hunch that our schools need to spend more time together reflecting on and sharing good ideas. Imagine the possibilities if we collectively make our schools the most innovative in the world.

So I recommend Johnson – whether you read the book or watch the TED Talk, or even save 14 minutes and watch the 4:07 minute RSA-like animate whiteboard video version, like 400,000 others have done since September.

And here’s my (or is it Johnson’s?!) best idea yet: read or watch, but please take the time to share your good ideas.