Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Day in the Life of an Elementary Vice Principal…Part 1

Let me start with a disclaimer…the typical day in the life of a school administrator is actually anything but typical. Part of the reason that I love this job is that every day is different. In fact, to illustrate this point, I’m thinking I will do “Part 2” of this post as the year progresses.
Each day I arrive at school just before 8 a.m. with the best of intentions and a list of all of the things I want to accomplish that day. Most days I leave still with good intentions, but with a bigger list. Such is the life of an educator!
When I arrive at school I check my voicemail. I have been calling educational assistants (EA) trying to fill a temporary job. There is a message from one of the EAs that I called the previous day saying that she is unavailable. Not a great start to the day.
I move on to my computer. I follow my principal’s advice: if you can answer the email in less than 2 minutes, answer right away. I’m pretty good at staying on top of my inbox. There are four emails that arrived on my half hour drive in to work, but nothing pressing.
I move on to check absences for the day and breathe a sigh of relief. We only have a few staff absences and they are all covered (yesterday we had two “unfilled” positions which takes some creative juggling of schedules).
The new office assistant who begins today arrives and we welcome her. We also found out late yesterday that there are four new students starting today, so the principal and I sit down and decide which classes they will be in. I go tell the teachers about their new students and make sure that they have enough desks while the principal goes out on bus duty. I think I have the better end of this deal…it’s cold out!
This brings us to 8:55 a.m.
Once students settle into class, I stop by a few classrooms. The four new students come in a bit late and I call students from each of their classrooms to come greet them and walk them to their new classes. I quickly meet with our custodian about some health and safety items and then I’m off to teach in our Developmental Skills classroom where I do a lesson on self-regulation.
AG_studentsNext up is first recess and nutrition break. The office is a busy time during breaks. Usually either the principal or I go outside and the other stays in. I stayed in today and did an informal restorative session with some Grade 3 students. I also had some Grade 8 students complete a “covert mission” to change the school sign to a goodbye message for a teacher who is on exchange from Australia and is about to return home.
At the end of recess, the Australian teacher comes to the office with a concern and I am flustered because, as part of the aforementioned covert mission, her class is about to come down with their French planning time teacher and pose in front of the sign for a picture as part of a farewell gift. I awkwardly whisper something to my principal, leaving the teacher to speak to him instead and sneak out of the office to go out and take a picture with the sign. Once that debacle is over, I have the Grade 8 students come back and put a different message up on the sign, leaving no trace of what we had done (aside from my awkward behaviour with the teacher).
Next up, I go down to Grade 7 where the class is interviewing me for a biography project. I was there for about half an hour. They had some great questions like, “What advice would you like to give to students?”  My answer: “Be kind to others, always work hard, believe in yourself.”
After spending time with the Grade 7s, I return to the office and have a bite to eat while simultaneously booking an EA to come in for the next few days for our vacancy. I read and reply to my new emails and, intermittently, proud students stop by to show me work they had completed. A little later another student comes down to play a game of soccer as a bit of a break…he won.
During second recess and nutrition break, I promised a group of Grade 8 boys that I will supervise them in the gym playing basketball. I also have to follow up with a recess issue from the morning so I have those students meet me in the gym and speak with me on the stage while I supervise the older boys. The Australian teacher also comes in to speak to me again…Grade 4s can’t keep secrets. She knows about the covert mission but I’m relieved that at least now she understands my strange behaviour from this morning!
AG_LetterOn Friday evening, our school hosted Storytime with Santa and part of the festivities included writing letters to Santa. Our Grade 8 “elves” responded to the primary students’ letters, and I spent the next hour figuring out where to deliver all of them. This involved some detective work because some of the students only wrote their first names. I have a quick meeting with a parent and then around 2:45 p.m., I go to a Grade 2/3 class to cover for a teacher who has to leave early for basketball.
At the end of the day, I finish up some paperwork and, since it has been a relatively quiet day, I decided to write this post. This brings me to 5 p.m…time to pack up for home.
False alarm.
It is now 5:20 p.m. and there are still students at the school after a rehearsal for the Glee performance. No one has picked them up and we can’t reach their parents. Next up…detouring on the way home to drop them off and make sure someone is home to meet them.
That was my day in the life of an elementary vice principal!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Self-regulation: What "Zone" are you in?

“Self-regulation” is a hot topic right now in Ontario as well as in international education. Government publications such as, “With our Best Future in Mind”, “Every Child, Every Opportunity” and “Supporting Minds” clearly set out expectations and strategies to address this topic. The theory behind this trend is that the better a child can self-regulate, the more prepared they are for learning.

We live in a culture of consequences and rewards. While often effective in changing behaviour, implementing consequences and rewards does not help us to understand the reasons behind a person’s behavior.

I am a strong believer that all children want to do well and that when they don’t succeed in school, it is certainly not because they are trying to be “bad” or even because they are trying to seek attention or get out of doing work. To understand the reasons why a child might be having difficulty paying attention, inhibiting impulsiveness, regulating emotions, getting along with others and overall, being “ready to learn” we need to understand what “stressors” may be playing a role. When a child (or an adult for that matter) is not performing to the best of their ability, often a combination of biological, emotional, cognitive and social factors come into play.

Regulating one’s emotions is a skill that is not innately present, and just as we teach math and language, we must teach these important life skills, both at home and at school. One of our school goals this year is to implement a school-wide focus on self-regulation. We are teaching our students to use tools to help them monitor and improve their emotional states so that they are able to optimize their ability to learn. In other words, we want our students to recognize how they feel, and if they aren’t feeling good, we want them to identify what is making them feel that way and what can be done about it.

There are many formal programs as well as informal strategies that can be used to teach self-regulation in schools. “Zones of Regulation” by Leah M. Kuypers is a program that many Simcoe County District School Board schools are currently using. It’s a curriculum consisting of 18 lessons aimed at teaching self-regulation strategies. Although it is intended to be implemented one-on-one or in small groups, many educators have adapted the program to meet the needs of whole classes, and in our case, school wide.

Using this framework, students develop their own personal “toolkit” of strategies to use during different situations to bring them back to the “green zone” where they “do their best learning”. These self-regulation tools are individualized for each person but may include strategies such as using breathing techniques, stretching, exercising, listening to quiet music, or simply getting a drink of water.

Understanding the Zones

Within this program there are four “Zones” that correspond with different colours. If a child is in the green zone, they are calm, happy and ready to learn. If someone is in the blue zone they are in a low state of alertness where they may be sad, tired or bored. In the yellow zone, a student is experiencing a heightened state of alertness where they may be frustrated, worried, nervous or excited. In the red zone, students are in an extremely heightened state of alertness and may be angry or out of control.

It is normal for everyone to experience times in the blue, yellow or even the red zones but our goal at school is to try to help students to be in the green zone where they are “ready for learning”. This is not always an easy task, even for adults. Consequently, some of our classes are framing this work around the slogan “It’s not easy being green.”

As you can see, our school has taken “Zones” and is developing additional school wide strategies like “it’s not easy being green”. Some classes are also implementing classroom “workshops” where students can perform different learning activities with and without the use of various “tools” and then determine what tools work best for them and in which situations. Student leaders then run these workshops for younger students.

Around our school, all school staff use the common language of “Zones” and we also use this language with parents. Parents are kept informed about school-wide Zones programming through brochures that have been sent home as well as updates through the school newsletter. Families can support their children by using the same language at home. They can also help their children to label their emotions and help them come up with coping strategies that they can use in and outside of the home. Parents can also model this by labeling their own emotions and demonstrating how they use “tools” to get themselves back into the “green zone”.

I hope that by now you have developed an understanding that self-regulation doesn’t simply mean to sit and be quiet in class…that is called compliance…it is also called boredom! Compliance is often based on punishment and reward but, unlike compliance, self-regulation increases the ability to cope with greater and greater challenges. It means that students understand what conditions help them work best and begin to self-advocate to implement those conditions.

When I was in school, like many students, I had difficulty sitting still for lessons and blocking out distractions. A few years ago my mother gave me some of my old elementary school report cards that she had found and they made very clear mention of these difficulties…I mean embarrassingly clear mention. In reality, I still have these challenges; but as I got older, I learned to use my “toolkit” more frequently to help me to be successful at school and work. I knew that I had trouble staying still and needed to keep busy. Luckily, by late high school and university, I had developed a very positive coping strategy that involved keeping my mind and body engaged in learning by keeping very detailed notes. Even as an adult, people who sit next to me at professional development sessions will notice that my hand is always moving, whether I am typing, writing or doodling. This strategy helps me to remain focused for longer periods of time but also helps me to retain information. If I was not taught this strategy, in this case by my parents, I may not have learned socially acceptable ways to have success in school and my life could be very different today.

I believe that one of our goals, as parents and as educators is to teach children and young adults to implement self-regulation strategies so that as they get older, they can function in the real world as adults who are able to make responsible decisions, support themselves to the best of their ability and contribute productively to society.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Restorative practices in schools: build community, strengthen relationships and repair harm

What are restorative practices?

The term “restorative practices” was derived from a sector of the youth criminal justice system and is also a highly valued approach to problem solving in First Nations communities.

The basic goals of this philosophy are to build community, strengthen relationships and repair harm through open dialogue, problem solving and accountability.

Rather than simply punishing the person who has done wrong, individuals are held accountable for their actions by participating in face-to-face discussion with the people they have harmed. The restorative approach to problem solving brings together those who have been harmed, the person or people who have harmed them and affected family, friends and community members.

The resulting dialogue aims to build understanding between participants, explore how people’s actions have impacted those involved and develop agreements for what will be done to make things right. Research on this approach indicates positive outcomes for both victims and offenders, including reduced rates of re-offending.

How we use restorative practices in schools

Restorative practices can be implemented in many ways, beginning with the creation of a strong sense of community in a classroom and moving up a continuum to a more formalized restorative circle that is run by trained facilitators. Here are a few examples beginning with general classroom and school-wide practices, and moving to more formal procedures:
  • School staff working to create a safe, caring and respectful classroom culture and taking advantage of opportunities to teach social skills within the context of everyday events
  • Classroom circles. These may include check in/check out circles at the beginning and end of the day, group decision making circles or discussion circles based on a specific issue or discussion topic (e.g. what does respect look like when we line up for the bus? What is acceptable? What is not acceptable? Why?)
  • Small, impromptu discussions with students who are in conflict (many school staff even carry the restorative questions on a lanyard worn around their neck so that they can refer to them whenever the need arises, such as on the school yard)
  • Use of a “restorative room.” As a part of our recess duty schedule, my school has a staffed room with trained restorative facilitators who work with students to help them solve ongoing minor conflicts. These students may not require a formal circle but need time and support to work through their difficulties.
  • Community circles. These are more formalized, scripted circles run by trained facilitators. These involve the person or people who has been harmed, the person or people who have done harm and others who have been affected. In the case of formal circles, the members of the group may vary but could include students staff, parents and community members

Why sit in a circle?

You may have noticed that a number of the approaches involving restorative practices include sitting in a circle. The shape of a circle promotes interconnectedness and equality. Members have to face each other and communicate to work out an issue, even if it is uncomfortable. Through this process, they learn that their opinion is valuable and that through difficult conversations, problems can be resolved in a meaningful and lasting way. In the circle, all participants, regardless of role, age or gender or other characteristics, are considered of equal importance, with equal voice.

Restorative questions for impromptu discussions and formal circles

Questions asked of the person who has done harm
: What happened? What were you thinking of at the time? What have you thought of since? Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way? What do you think you need to do to make things right?

Questions to help those affected: What did you think when you realized what had happened? What impact has this incident had on you and others? What has been the hardest thing for you? What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

After all members have had a chance to speak, they work together to come up with a mutually agreeable solution and set up a specific plan to move forward. Depending on the situation, this may involve something as simple as a sincere apology and promise to not repeat an action, or something more considerable like financial restitution for a stolen item. At this time, a date is also set for a “check in” with the facilitator to ensure the agreement is being honoured over time.

Traditional approach vs. restorative approach

A traditional approach to discipline in schools focuses on blaming the offender, establishing which school rule has been violated and making them accountable by punishing them.

Many of us grew up with this approach and many teachers have practiced their behaviour management in ways that reflect this. Implementing a restorative approach can challenge educators in ways that may cause discomfort. I know that when I am feeling sick tired or having a particularly stressful day, my first instinct is to take a traditional approach. Creating a restorative community takes work and it takes a lot of time.

There are also times where a restorative approach may not be the most appropriate solution to a problem. In order to implement a restorative discussion, the person who has done wrong must admit what they have done, accept responsibility for their actions and agree to participate. The people affected must also be willing to openly share their experience which can be intimidating and painful (this is also why it is important for supporters to be involved). If there are multiple, repetitive issues and this approach has been attempted, or in cases of very serious offenses, more traditional means may also be considered.

When we use a traditional punitive approach (i.e. suspension), we ignore the victim. The person who has done harm never really has to hear how they have affected others from that person and the people around them. This is a very powerful component of restorative practices. It can also be stigmatizing, not allowing the person who has done wrong to have an opportunity to try to make amends. They may only see themselves as a “bad person”, not a good person who has made a wrong decision, and the cycle of negative behavior continues.

The restorative approach invites collaboration, taking responsibility and being accountable. When participants have worked through the restorative questions and are discussing a solution, often the person who has done harm is harder on themself than the person who has been wronged because they truly understand the effects of their actions.

Why Use Restorative Practices in Schools?

  • fosters a strong sense of community and safety
  • creates opportunities for dialogue in an environment of trust and respect
  • takes into account the needs of all involved
  • establishes a support network
  • focuses on both prevention and intervention
  • promotes oral language skills
  • encourages and reinforces behaviours that are valued, while discouraging behaviours that are unwanted
  • helps to resolve classroom issues
  • places responsibility on the students
  • respectful of all involved
  • leads to lasting behaviour change and learning
  • teaches that, even if you make a mistake, you possess the tools to repair the harm that has been done
  • builds connectedness among students and evokes respect for different cultures, preferences and opinions
  • recognizes achievements and strengths
  • prevents minor problems from escalating
  • can be used to organize class or community action on an issue
  • teaches accountability and actions affect others

In summary, to be ‘restorative’ means to act on the belief that decisions are best made and conflicts are best resolved by those directly involved in and affected by the situation. In a world that has become increasingly disconnected, this method of problem solving seeks to develop relationships and restore a sense of community.

I will end with a quote from one of the students at my school. When asked how they felt after participation in a restorative circle they replied, “I learned that there are different sides to the same story. We all have reasons why we act certain ways…sometimes you don’t think of that. Now I know that, when there is a problem, I can say how I feel and be a part of the solution, and that feels really good.”

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

When Kids are Stressed

Stress and anxiety are normal feelings that all people experience. However, how we deal with these feelings can be vastly different. Anxiety and stress seem to be growing concerns among younger and younger students, often leading to poor school attendance and other issues.

Like adults, children and youth cope with stress in a variety of ways. They may act out, shut down, avoid situations or self medicate with food, alcohol or drugs. This post will look at some ways to help your child cope with difficult emotions and stressful situations.

Ask the expert

Even at a young age, your child will often be able to communicate the cause of their worries. Sometimes we try to come up with our own reasons, but try asking your child what you can do to help them feel better and what has helped them in the past when they have felt that way.

Work together to devise coping strategies

Help them connect their emotions with physical symptoms that they may experience. There are many of physical indicators of stress: stomach aches, muscle tension, shakiness, headaches and changes in body temperature are just a few. Talk with your child and help them come up with a list of strategies that help them to calm down when they start to experience a particular feeling. Different strategies will work for different people but some examples are deep breathing, muscle relaxation, listening to music, physical activity, talking to someone they trust and using positive self talk.

Manage your own stress

It is easy to forget that our children are always watching and are directly affected by the stresses of those around them. When we model positive ways to manage anxiety, relationships and health, it rubs off on our children. You are your child’s first and best teacher!

Give the gift of time

Some children are so scheduled that they have next to no time to just “be a kid”. Extra-curricular activities are great for kids, but self-directed time is also important. Along these lines, having regular one-on-one time where you listen and acknowledge the validity of their feelings is another gift of time that you can give to your child.

Communicate with your child’s teacher

If you have concerns about your child, whether it be about bullying, homework or even if you don’t know the cause of your child’s anxiety, I would encourage you to make an appointment with school staff to communicate your concerns and work together to come up with solutions.

Encourage their individuality

To some extent, we all measure our achievements against external standards set by peers and family members. Be sure to recognize your child’s goals and celebrate their achievements, whatever they may be.

Teach them that imperfections are OK…and so is failure

We all want to protect our children when things go wrong. The fact is though, that sometimes things don’t go as expected. Bad grades, being cut from a team and pimples are all unpleasant but normal parts of life. If they don’t learn how to deal with these situations now, they will have an even more difficult time coping with stress as adults.

Seek help if you need to

According to Health Canada, anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems. Anxiety and mental health issues affect all ages, races, genders and socioeconomic groups. The good news is that these disorders can be successfully treated. It is important to recognize the difference between being anxious in response to a real event, and an anxiety disorder which produces negative feelings that are out of proportion to the situation. If you think that your child’s stress or anxiety falls into this category, the sooner you reach out, the better. There are a number of programs run in schools and through community agencies in Simcoe County that can help you and your child.

Here are a couple of great starting websites to explore local services:



Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Ask me why I love my job

Last week, all of the Simcoe County District School Board principals and vice-principals attended a Director’s Meeting. When we were greeted at the entrance, we were all given pins to wear with the statement, “Ask me why I love my job.” When I returned to the school the following day, I stuck the pin into my office bulletin board. While working at my desk, I have been finding myself looking up at the pin and pondering what my response would be.

There were a few stressful moments over the last week when I admit that I looked at the pin and laughed, but the statement, “Ask me why I love my job” stayed with me. Through the week, I continued to think about the reasons I chose the career of elementary school administrator. I realized that it is in those challenging moments when it is essential to have solid grasp on my response. So, I decided to write my first blog post on this topic.

I have been a vice-principal for the past two years, and I believe that it is truly one of the best jobs in education. In Simcoe County, many vice-principals spend a portion of their day teaching. While the teaching part of my job often occurs in the midst of administrative duties, once I get into a class and begin teaching, I can temporarily forget about those tasks and fully focus on the kids. It keeps me in touch with the students and helps us build relationships on a more personal level.

I love people…all kinds of people. My job gives me the opportunity to work with children and parents from all walks of life. I enjoy getting to know them and sharing their life experiences, both positive and negative. When people come to see me in my office, it is not always for something positive. Luckily, I also love a good challenge and the opportunity to problem solve. Although talking to someone who is upset isn’t pleasant at the time, the feeling of satisfaction and growth that occurs after coming up with a mutually agreeable solution is gratifying.

Working with staff and community partners is another highlight of my job. I work with an outstanding principal who is an out-of-the-box thinker. I have learned so much working with him and have had many laughs along the way. I love learning, and I learn every day from the incredible staff at my school.

It is extremely fulfilling to make a difference and have a positive impact on others. As a teacher, I made an impact on the students who I taught. As a vice-principal, I hope to make a positive impact on the entire school. I love collaborating with teachers, offering feedback and seeing them grow from day to day and year to year. I enjoy working with “difficult” students and seeing them mature and grow.

I enjoy spending time each day walking through classrooms and seeing students participate in a variety of wonderful and creative activities their teachers have planned to support their learning. Teachers also often send students to the office to show me their work or to read with me. Witnessing students genuinely excited about learning something new is a wonderful feeling.

I empathize with students who get bored easily. As a school administrator, each day is different. You never know who you will meet, what challenges you will face or which opportunities will arise. I can say with 100 percent certainty that there is never a day that I say “I’m bored” working in this job.

Being a school administrator is demanding, but it is also rewarding. You have to be thick skinned (I’m still working on this one), hard working, organized, caring, flexible and creative. It is not a job for just anyone. I would by lying if I said that there aren’t aspects that I could do without (for example: some of the politics, being the “bad guy” and maintaining work-life balance), but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

The educators who I have had the pleasure of working with during my career have been some of the most caring and dedicated people who I have ever met. I’m sure, if you ask, they could add many more points to this blog post.

This week, as we kick off a new school year, and especially if challenges arise, I will continue to focus on the reasons why I love my job. I don’t know what this year will bring, but I am looking forward to blogging about my thoughts and experiences. I would encourage readers to post comments and suggestions for topics that you would like me to explore. Happy September and welcome back to our SCDSB schools!