Dick Cherry coached me

Last night, for the second Saturday in a long time, Don Cherry held court in front of millions of Canadians.  Don, as hockey fans among you will know, (and I didn’t until I looked it up) only played one hockey game in the NHL.  But his brother Dick played 149 NHL games, and then he left and became an elementary school principal.  Both Don and Dick coached hockey players, but Dick also coached students and teachers.

In beginning to focus on our National Research Project, Inspiring Excellence, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of feedback in learning, and additionally, the need for administrators to give meaningful feedback to teachers.  And this is where Dick Cherry comes in….

Dick Cherry coached me to be a better teacher.  Twenty years ago, when I was a student teacher, I had a teaching placement in a JK-8 school in the Kingston area, and Dick Cherry was the Principal.  Like his brother, he was larger than life. (keep in mind that I knew nothing of his NHL hockey career.)  He was playful and exuded passion.  I remember that he played the banjo at the school, and on snowy days when outdoor recess was cancelled, he had the kids square dancing in the gym.  I remember standing at the back of an assembly once and seeing him, when no one else could, sprint down the hall then stop outside the doors, pull himself together and saunter into the gym to address the kids.  It might have been my first glimpse into the behind the scenes life of an administrator.

Once when I was teaching a grade seven class, Dick stood in the doorway watching me.  Later that day, he said something to me like, “You let your feelings show when you get stressed and these kids will eat you alive if you don’t learn to mask your emotions.”  He took me across the hall, to the grade eight classroom, and asked me what I observed.  The class was a bit chaotic – I think it was almost recess – but the kids were engaged and the teacher was in charge.  Dick whispered, “Watch him now.  He is directing them, and telling them off if you listen carefully; but he uses humour and he doesn’t let them get to him.”

Another time, he stood in the doorway of my classroom right before the end-of-day bell.  As the kids were packing up, Dick got their attention.  He asked my class,  “What did you learn today?”  The kids came to life – clearly they were used to being asked this question.  He listened and bantered about the odd comment, and when the bell rang, the kids left in a buzz.  Then he said to me, “What is the first thing parents ask kids when they see them?  This routine helps them have a fresh answer everyday.”  Lesson learned?  Remind kids – and their parents – of the value of learning.  Other lesson learned?  Much can be learned from watching the pros.

With the proliferation and increased quality of online learning, the future of great teaching will depend on those who are masterful at engaging with and inspiring kids.

What isn’t changing is the need for great administrators – like Dick Cherry – to spend time standing in doors, coaching teachers.

Today, Dick Cherry is 75 years old and still coaching hockey; I wonder if he’d take up the call to coach teachers too?

Sans technology

A few days before I left for New Zealand, a friend suggested I leave my iPhone at home.  What?  Three weeks without email?  For the past seven years, I have always remained in email contact with work, even on vacation.  Three weeks without texting?  Outrageous.  My iPhone rarely leaves my side, even in “off” hours.  (Admit it…you’re out with your family; you’ve promised to be good and give all of your focus to your family, but you sneak in a peek in the restaurant bathroom…I know I am not the only one…Kevin tells me young men text at the urinal…)

So it took me a few days to process this suggestion.  I trust my staff tremendously to handle anything while I’m away, and it is Christmas after all, so everyone is pretty focused on family and friends, so the office would be quiet.  Kevin and the kids thought it was the best idea ever, and everyone I mentioned it to agreed. No iPhone. No laptop. For three weeks.

The first day was hell.  I had made all of the travel arrangements and asked Kevin to print everything before leaving.  He saved the various links to our reservations and said printing was old fashioned.

Our first snag was at the Toronto airport when he couldn’t find the flight details and they insisted we needed an Australian visa (we didn’t).  Then in Australia we had trouble when he couldn’t access the internet (and the Air Canada website) and had to prove we were leaving New Zealand.  I admit that Kevin got a few ‘I told you so’ looks. Okay… more than a few and a few words as well…

In the first few days, I had technology withdrawal.  There were times when I thought – and dreamt – of work. Rather than send a quick email, I would write things down – silly things like remember to do this or call that person.  During the rest of the trip, at the oddest of times, I would have work things pop into my head, like when I was trying to decide on which brand of Sauvignon Blanc to buy. (I couldn’t believe the mark-downs on good wine at the grocery store – Save $12!  Kim Crawford was often on sale for $8!).

Eventually, my mind relaxed.  We had some long drives, when the radio didn’t work and we got bored of our four CDs and there was no hook up to iTunes.  For the first time in a long while, I would have hours of nothingness.  The kids had their iPhones so they were preoccupied in the back seat, which left us to long conversations or sometimes hours of uninterrupted sheep watching.  (New Zealand is home to 4 million people and 40 million sheep.)  I would get the kids to unplug too, and more than once, Kathleen fell asleep with her head out the window.

When I got home and looked through my journal, I realized that the ideas that came to me when I was not thinking about work – when I was totally preoccupied with vacationing – were actually some of my best ideas.  That first week back, I had a renewed energy for work and our team came up with some of our best ideas ever.  (We are pretty excited about our new CAIS Top 12).

How often do we let our minds relax? How long does it take for a mind to really let go and wander?  Is it different for kids?  How did we become so enrapt in our Smart Phones, that we forget how to take a break?

I’ve been talking to and emailing others about this idea, and so far, my favorite response comes from Graham Hookey, Head of Kempenfelt Bay, who wrote:

“As society and schools have become technology ‘mad’, I do believe we have crossed a line of moderation and may be conducting the largest social and educational experiment ever on our children, with little insight into how it might turn out…If you haven’t yet read Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows, it will offer some sobering thoughts in the moments when your phone and computer are shut off!”

I’ve ordered the book.


Just Jump

As I stood on the rocks above the Pelorus River, I froze.  I knew my family was becoming a bit impatient with me, and I could hear them yelling at me, “Just jump!”

I had watched as other adults and kids – including my own – had made the jump from the rocks to the river.  It was safe and everyone who jumped was hooting and hollering.  But I also knew the water was cold and the rocks were pretty high.  In short, I was afraid.  At the time I had a couple of thoughts – one was that I wanted my daughter to see that I could do whatever she could do; the other was that I wanted to overcome my fear.  Okay… to be honest, I also had a very pathetic thought – I actually thought of one of the sayings on the lululemon bags: do one thing a day that scares you.

So I jumped.

Maybe some of you are into big risk activities or fast sports, but I am not.  Truth is, I am a chicken.  But this experience made me feel so good that I did it again.

In total, I did four jumps during our three week trip to New Zealand – off a sailboat in Abel Tasman National Park, another off of Split Apple Rock, and yes, I did the jump of all jumps:  I bungy jumped 43 metres from the Kawarau Bridge, the same spot where A.J. Hackett created the first commercial public bungy.  Each time I was terrified – especially the last one, knowing that I would dip my head first into the Kawarau River before bouncing back up – but each time, afterwards, I have never felt such a rush.

Now that I am back to work, back to day-to-day non-vacation reality, I have been thinking about taking risks – the fear and also the confidence and the rush.  It sounds cliché, but I felt alive in those moments, and I want those feelings again.

Can I get that in my day-to-day life at work?

Today, on my first day back after 23 days on the other side of the world, I feel a bit like standing on a rock about to jump. Other than hundreds of emails and the usual projects, here is what I see when I look at jumping back into work:

  • Our new national research project on Excellence in Learning
  • Our Summer LI includes a new program for Heads, a second round of the Next Step Program, and a new Forum for Academic Leaders
  • Our Strategic Planning process begins with a survey this month.

At this point, these projects don’t have clear outcomes or any guarantee of success; plus, they will require a lot of hard work…. Come to think of it, my vacation jumps were easier!

But the fact is, I know that these projects will involve many people across the country and will ultimately contribute to strengthening our CAIS schools.  The fear is about getting started.

So I need to think about what I learned on my vacation:  jumping feels good and the after-jump feeling is even better.

So here I go…


Happy new year.