Advice to Teachers (from an Awesome Teacher)

The month of June can be tough on teachers – everyone is tired, cranky, and ready for a holiday. I was so inspired by the story of one of Jacob’s favourite teachers, Rory Gilfillan, that I asked him to share it:

Last week I was talking an Advisee down from great heights.  She is shy.  She also LOVES history and has a 97 in it.  She desperately wanted to win the History Award.  I don’t teach this course so I have no influence. I wasn’t sure she would get it so I ordered a book on Amazon called Inventing Freedom and then I got a card.  I texted her and told her to meet me under the tent they have put up for grad.  Turns out her Mom was with her. I set out two chairs at the back and made a small speech at the front outlining the short but distinguished pedigree of the Gilfillan History Award for Awesomeness.  I then called her up receive her award.

It’s seriously the best thing I have done in a very long time.

The interesting part of it was how long it took me to figure it out.  Katherine had a 97 in history but a lower mark in Math.  I kept saying, “Why on earth are you stressing about History?  You don’t even need to write the exam and you would still do well.   You really need to be stressed about Math.” And then, after a long back and forth conversation, I worked it out.  She wanted the award.

Quite frankly, I don’t always listen closely enough or hang in long enough to get to the truth.  In this instant I slowed down my usually high frequency operation and hung in two minutes longer.  There I found the truth, and I wanted to celebrate her.  This was a great moment for Katherine but, seriously, an even better moment for me.  I achieved, for about three minutes, what I came in to this profession to do:  I made a difference.

We, as teachers, spend so much time worrying about technology and assessment and making our classes good.  All fine and well but that’s not why I got in to this and it certainly won’t be what I remember when I reach the end of my career. I want to remember this lesson: I need to hang in on conversations in order to be able to hear what matters and then act on it.

I will remember that moment.

The best part is that the student in this story ended up winning the actual award at Saturday’s Closing Ceremony at Lakefield College School.

I wonder about this question – when she thinks back on her graduating year, which moment will be more cherished and memorable?

My guess is the audience of two, and my hope is that more teachers follow the lead of Rory Gilfillan.


p.s. I had permission from both Rory and Katherine Petrasek to publish this story.


What defines our CAIS culture?

Our CAIS team members talk a lot about culture in our schools. One of our most popular modules at our Leadership Institute is Faculty Culture, lead by Hal Hannaford; we introduced School Culture Focus Groups on this year’s accreditation reviews; and we always include the latest research on culture in our Top 12s.

I like what Angela Duckworth recently had to say about creating culture:

As [Seattle Seahawks head coach] Pete Carroll said to me, ‘it’s not one thing, it’s a million things.’ But there are some themes. One is language. It’s important to have a vocabulary that’s used within that organization, and not to use synonyms. The second is rituals: you can ritualize things like working on your weaknesses — at the Seahawks, they call it ‘Tell the Truth Monday,’ so it becomes a routine. On Mondays, we look at the things we’re doing wrong. Tuesdays we do something different. I think that’s helpful. The third is that in group psychology, you basically create an identity. When people who work in a very strong culture identify themselves, they often use a noun form, such as a West Pointer. Or at KIPP, the charter school, you call yourself a KIPPster — they will actually say out loud — ‘I’m not just a student, I’m a KIPPster.’ When you break down what a culture is, it’s reinforcing an identity of ‘this is who we are. It’s different from the way other people are, but you’re in this group — not their group.’

So at our staff retreat last month, knowing that we would be hiring a new Executive Assistant, (we are so sad to lose Lynne Turnbull but wish her all the best with her move to Europe!), we tried to capture our culture at CAIS. We wanted to be able to say: “This is who we are”.  Here it is:

  • We believe in better. We challenge our schools to be better through PD, accreditation and research; but we also challenge ourselves to be better in everything we do.
  • We are direct with each other. There is high integrity, kindness, and trust, but that only comes from feedback: we praise publicly and criticize privately. There are no surprises on our team. When you work in a virtual office, and even when you don’t, you have to speak up with confidence.
  • We deliver client service beyond expectations. We are a nimble team and everyone works hard to respond to member needs. We love to hear that members are surprised by what we accomplished for them.
  • We listen to our members. Although we also work hard to understand their needs by researching and observing schools, we are at our best when we can say that we heard you say this, so we did that.
  • We believe that everyone supports everyone on our team. We are results-oriented, which means that we prioritize our time according to the needs of the organization at the time. We are a small team, so we all have to pitch in on projects when needed.
  • We are background people. We understand that when you work for a membership association, your job is to make others look good, especially volunteers.
  • We presume good intentions. That’s just a simple rule for us.
  • We play to our strengths. We know each other well and strive for a model that leverages our capacity.
  • We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We work hard but we also laugh and pursue interests beyond our jobs. We know we are a bit quirky, and we like it that way.
  • We are comfortable with the unpredictable. Okay, we try hard to be comfortable with the unpredictable and may have to remind each other of this one! Working as a virtual team can be messy, which is why the previous belief is so important.

Full disclosure: Our strategic advisor suggested we model our approach on Google’s Ten things we know to be true. But at least we didn’t review Google’s until after we worked on our own. I hope your team might do the same!

One last point: The cover of this month’s Harvard Business Review is Managing the 24/7 Workplace, which explores the problems with today’s work environment like ours. We read this with great interest… here’s the conclusion:

BR1606_500What defines our CAIS culture?By valuing all aspects of people’s identities, rewarding work output instead of work time, and taking steps to protect employees’ personal lives, leaders can begin to unravel the ideal-worker myth that has become woven into
the fabric of their organizations. And that will enhance employees’ resilience, their creativity, and their satisfaction on the job.

At a time when people seem to be criticizing the high intensity workplace, our team seems to have it figured out. Always good to have Harvard on your side…


Ten Lessons from CAIS Students on LGBTQ+

What can we learn from this week’s first ever CAIS Student Panel?

For starters, technology is changing the way we connect. As I sat in my kitchen, chatting with three amazing students about the highly personal topic of gender orientation, gender identification, and sexual orientation, I felt moved by their courage and inspired by their passion and ideas. I felt as if they were in my kitchen with me. But the fact is the students were only images on my laptop. Frank, Sid, and Miles were actually each by themselves, sitting in classrooms in St George’s, St Michaels University School and Shawnigan Lake School. Meanwhile, over 100 people – staff and students alike – sat in their separate CAIS schools across the country. Some joined in alone, but others sat in groups, at least one class of students joined the panel; and two schools broadcast the panel in their community spaces.

The impressive part? Frank, Sid and Miles not only spoke articulately but also managed to jump in and interact with the participants on the chat. This was truly a national conversation!

So I have a few big take-aways: we should connect more often as a national network; we should include students in the conversations – Maureen Steltman, Head of Fraser Academy suggested we should have invited parents! – and we should have the courage to continue the conversation and maybe even take on other big topics.

But the most important lessons came directly from the students. I encourage you to watch the full discussion, but here are the ten lessons from my notes:

  1. Safety is a big issue, and everyone has a right to feel safe, both emotionally and physically. We need to raise awareness and talk more about tolerance.
  2. Include age appropriate curriculum on gender orientation and identification. Our CAIS schools have the liberty to do more than just the provincial curriculum, so we should be leaders in the classroom.
  3. Support a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA; sometimes called Gender Sexuality Awareness) club in your school; and if you don’t have one, start one. Clubs can promote visibility and demonstrate acceptance.
  4. Challenge the subtle homophobia and passive bullying that continues to exist in society. Schools can teach the significance of words and the harm that can be done.
  5. Share resources – check out our CAIS LGBTQ+ resource page here
  6. Understand that change can take time and remember that even small things can really help.
  7. Market our CAIS schools as safe and open places; Sid and Miles told me that they chose their universities based on what they researched on the university websites (Good for Carleton and UBC!)
  8. The media has made the conversation about bathrooms, but that’s not the issue! Students want to understand and be understood.
  9. We need schools to update their policies. If the government can pass Bill C-16 to ensure Canadians are free to identify themselves and express their gender as they wish while being protected against discrimination and hate, then schools need to figure out how to best support all students and staff. Schools can start by including students in the development of policies.
  10. Leaders have to understand the issues, hold people accountable for their actions, and do more to raise awareness.Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 4.19.26 PM

It was a privilege to be part of Monday’s powerful conversation, and I am so grateful to Frank, Sid and Miles for their openness, courage, and candor. I love thinking about the conversations that will continue across the country because of their leadership. Maybe some of the conversations will even happen in your kitchen!

CAIS is in the business of asking good questions

This is the season for graduation speeches, and here is another one that I love, by James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard School of Education.  He tells the story of his past speeches – he spoke two years ago on time and last year about sin, so when people asked him what he would speak about at this year’s graduation ceremony, he would reply: That’s a good question. And this became his topic. He lists what he believes are the most important questions, and of the six, my favourite question is this – “Wait. What?”

I have other favourite questions; in fact, I often say CAIS is in the business of asking questions. Now before you ask, “Wait. What?” let me explain.

  1. Accreditation

At CAIS, we spent a lot of time determining the best questions to ask in the Internal Evaluation process, and I am proud that our 2015 Accreditation Guidelines include the most relevant questions that the best schools should be discussing, if they want to remain the best schools in Canada. This spring, we spent considerable time talking about the questions to ask during a CAIS Accreditation visit. We have always said that the role of the Visiting Committee is primarily to validate what was written in the school’s Internal Evaluation Report. But what could be even better? (One of my favourite questions…) Two initiatives:

  1. a) We believe that great schools have great Boards, so we are now including a Board member on the Sunday of every Accreditation visit to make the governance review a true peer-to-peer process.
  2. b) We also believe that great schools focus on culture, so we have introduced a new School Culture Focus Group, led by the CAIS On-site Coordinator, to our review process.
  1. Research

You will not believe the quality of this year’s Research Reports.   We have 15 CAIS leaders conducting research on some of the biggest questions facing our industry. These will be shared this fall, but I want to thank Tammy, Glenn, Chad, Denise, Sarah, Helen, Shailau, Danielle, Mary Anne, Jim, Justin, Garth, Glen, William, and Adrian now for their hard work this year. Honestly? We couldn’t be happier with their progress.

  1. Learning Community

CAIS is a national learning community. Different national groups come together face-to-face only three times per year (Heads and Chairs in October; National Leaders in April; and Aspiring Leaders in July). This means that we are “Online all the time” exploring – again! – the big questions in education. Over 200 people participated in our Spring Governance webinar series and today we are announcing a new one: CAIS Students will lead a panel on how to support LGBTQ+ students. How can schools be better at supporting students’ questions around gender and sexuality? Now that’s a good question.

When we are best at our jobs, we are focused on the best questions. No “Wait. What?” about that.

p.s. Watch Dean James Ryan’s speech called Good Questions here.