“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Daring Classrooms

I state the obvious when I say that teaching is a demanding job.  If you are reading this, you are most likely a teacher and this is not news to you.  I’d like to highlight a resource that feeds the soul of a teacher (and quite frankly a human being) while also providing some strategies for integrating that soul feeding into your classroom practice for your students.  Wait, what…that exists?  It is a website from Brene Brown called Daring Classrooms.  If you haven’t heard of her yet, you can find “The Call to Courage” on Netflix and/or her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  She is inspirational in leadership, in life and in work.  Here is a snippet from her #DaringClassrooms website:

“Teachers are some of our most important leaders. We know that we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection.

But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do as teachers, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.

Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.

And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.

Teachers: Everyday should be Teacher Appreciation Day. I am so grateful for you and your willingness to show up and create brave, safe spaces where our children can learn, grow, and be seen.”

Some of the short (8-12 minute) video resources from Daring Classrooms include:

How do we avoid the pressure to please?

How do teachers manage oversharing?

How do we help parents understand failing as part of the learning process?

Does the word “disappointed” shame students?

In addition to the video resources there are free downloads for resources, parenting the classroom and daily life.  There are pdfs that you can print out for working with students.  My favourite one is the list of core emotions.  Sometimes when students have triggers they can’t always name or explain the emotion that caused the trigger in behaviour.  Being able to learn about the names and the definitions of core emotions is helpful for students to self-regulate.

Every year in a classroom brings new challenges.  In fact, every day in a classroom will bring on a new challenge.  I hope that as you lead your own #DaringClassroom you will find this resource helpful and that it may feed your teacher soul.

Don’t Give Up on a Tough Class

I have one class that is very tricky. It is a very large class with a lot of emotional, physical and academic needs. It is the two periods in the week that I wish I had a clone of myself so that I could meet everyone’s needs immediately all the time (with this class I might need an army of clones).

I would rate the autumn with this class as alright. We have had our ups and downs. Some periods have gone well. Some have not. The thing that has been most consistent with this class is that I refuse to give up on them and their ability to do well in Music.

I feel at this point in the year, I have tried so many strategies to get the classes running smoothly and find ways to support my weaker students. However, it wasn’t until this past week that I feel like I have made a breakthrough!

I have finally landed on a combination of whole group instruction, peer-supported creations and individual choice.

Getting to know the students has been an important factor in this positive change. I have had several conversations with many of the students about sports, animals, music and all of their interests. I have used that knowledge to help build a relationship with them and inform my decisions around content for upcoming classes. I know for one of my students who is having the most difficult time at school right now, he really loves sports. I am planning to do a basketball dance this term to incorporate his interests.

I also have some students in the class who are significantly below grade level. Many of these students are embarrassed to ask other students for help. They are weak in reading and writing and therefore, they are very reluctant to work with many of the students in the class. Last week, I went to each of them individually and asked if they felt comfortable with anyone in the class. I let them choose who their partner was and since they all had a say in who they were going to work with, they all had a level of comfort in working in the class.

I met with the classroom teachers about good accommodations that I could provide for their students with upcoming assignments. I have also conferred with the classroom teachers about medical needs and emotional needs.

I have built in the usage of many of my student’s strengths. Everyone has so many amazing skills and I have tried to highlight them. I have a student who can’t read but is great at tech. He is my technology advisor and the kid I send everyone to when we have problems. Another student can’t read either, but is an incredible singer and rapper. He can improvise at the drop of a hat and can generate ideas at a speed I cannot match. When we need lyric or rhythm ideas, we know who we can count on.

I have continuously worked on trying to improve the climate. Last week, before we started our partner activity, I had the students do the game Two Truths and a Lie with their partner to build a relationship with their new partner. Taking time away from curriculum to build climate has been worth the investment.

Using choice as a motivator has also worked exceptionally well. Students begged me to allow them to listen to music of their choice when they are finished their compositions. “For sure!” I said. We are developing a pre-approved list of music to listen to.

Ultimately, the most important thing is not to give up. Have a good cry, a particularly big piece of chocolate cake and a long phone call complaining to your friend about your difficulties. After that, analyze what is going on that is not working, and start a plan tomorrow. And if that doesn’t work, try something else on the next time. It might take time, but it is worth it!

Building Better Schools Forum

What does a healthy classroom look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like when you enter through the classroom door? I recently had the opportunity to be a part of our local ETFO’s Building Better Schools Forum in Kitchener. It is an initiative by our provincial office to engage parents, guardians and community members in helping shape the direction of elementary schools in our province (http://www.buildingbetterschools.ca/the_plan ).

I was part of a three-member panel that was made up of a social worker professor from the University of Waterloo, a school council chair and mother of students in the WRDSB and myself, a teacher in the board. We had a variety of questions that were asked of us that allowed the audience (including our local released officers, director of education, superintendents, board trustees and general community) to hear from this cross section of people about their concerns, their wishes and the areas that they felt satisfied with in the public education system.

The number one item that came across from the panel was the concern about mental health and how it permeates every area of our education system from students to teachers to parents. What was once overlooked, swept under the carpet or just ignored now is coming to light as a result of the courage of many people who are helping reshape our thinking.

The end result of needs not being met when it comes to mental health in the classroom is usually maladaptive behaviour that can range from withdrawal to violence to attempting suicide. What was clear in the conversation is that there is not enough supports available in our communities and schools to support the increasing demand.

As teachers, we are at the frontline to this growing epidemic and need to understand that our wellness will dictate the wellness of our classroom. Don’t tolerate violence, don’t just look at the behaviour component and don’t stop lobbying for change by our government. We must give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, we must build balance into our lives throughout the school year and not just on holidays and finally we must have our voices heard in helping get the changes needed in our education system.


Emotions, Context and the Reluctant Writer

One of the biggest challenges I face is getting my students to enjoy and take risks with writing. Too often they get bogged down with the fear of not knowing what to write or nervous about experimenting with vocabulary they do not know how to spell. There are two critical approaches I take in helping my very reluctant writers to engage in the writing process. The first is to help them understand the stages of writing (Idea, Plan, Draft, Edit/Revise, Publish and Share). Each stage is explored and its purpose discussed and demonstrated in multiple ways. Once a student understands that the edit/revise stage occurs after you are able to get your ideas, thoughts and/or feelings into print form they become more likely to take risks in getting their ideas out. When they give themselves permission to let their ideas free flow without word-by-word critiquing, the quantity and quality of their work improves. A completed draft version allows them to separate I have good ideas and can write from I need help in making sure my writing is correct and ready to share with others. I also experience a huge drop off in the question “How do you spell _____________”.  That focus typically grinds the creative process to a complete halt.

The second element that greatly assists me in helping my reluctant writers is to as often as possible design a writing focus around an event relevant to their life. This may be something going on in their school community like writing a persuasive writing piece on allowing students to wear hats in school. It may be a news event from their community or a global situation that will help connect my students to a bigger audience.

Several years ago when the Chilean mining catastrophe occurred we had taken time to have it as a part of our morning circle conversation. That lead to a brainstorming session on what might we do to help out. The final decision was that we could write letters of support to them.  I found the address to the Chilean Embassy in Ottawa and we mailed our letters to them. The power of the contextual relevance automatically tapped into their emotions. When emotions are involved in the learning process the lesson, the message, the focus becomes more consolidated in their cognitive realm. A magical bonus on this project was that my class received a letter from the Chilean Embassy acknowledging our letters and honouring the efforts of my students. Our next writing unit was accepted with little or no resistance.

Anchoring Learning

Anchor charts have long been identified as a high-yield learning tool. What exactly is an anchor chart? Why use them? How do you determine what should be on an anchor chart? These are common questions faced by teachers as they try to establish optimum learning environments for their students.

I have heard anchor charts best described as the ‘third teacher’. The following is a quote from Scholastic’s Literacy Place – For The Early Years, 2010. “ To promote literacy skills and encourage independence, you will want to make strategic and purposeful use of print resources such as posters, signs, lists, charts, and student/teacher writing samples in your classroom. One tool in particular, the anchor chart, is very effective in promoting student success. An anchor chart outlines or describes procedures, processes, and strategies on a particular theme or topic and is posted in the classroom for reference by students. Examples of anchor charts include: what to do in an interview, tips on using commas, what readers need to do when they infer, how to choose just right’ books, or how to write a literature response.

This of course aligns perfectly with the visual learner. Visual learners learn through seeing, observing and anchor charts allow them perpetual access to critical information and not just when instruction by a teacher is occurring. They can return to the key ideas or concepts when they need to and as often as they need to.

One lesson that I have learned is that not everything can be an anchor chart even though it is all so valuable. If the visual scene in your classroom becomes cluttered the benefits of this tool diminish as they just become part of the scenery and no longer a tool for the students. In my class we have a large variety of anchor charts positioned around the classroom with different colours, fonts, sizes, shapes and almost any other way I can make them unique and stick out. I did an experiment with my students one day where I gave them post it notes and asked them to go around and put them on the anchor charts they used most often and felt were most helpful to them. Prior to that I had made my prediction of what might occur. Needless to say, what I thought was most important did not align with their view. Sooooo from that point on, my anchor charts became a mutual task created by my students and myself. I still do all of the finish work, but the content and positioning in the room is a shared decision. One final change in my practice as a result of that data collection was that I am constantly changing the visual cues so that they stay fresh as learning tools and not just become a regular site in the room.

Another feature of this great tool is that I also have personal anchor charts around my desk that help me as I learn new pedagogy to add to my practice. I am able to return to them throughout the day to evaluate my growth and development progress. IMG_1799 IMG_1803 IMG_1804 IMG_1797 IMG_1806 IMG_1798 IMG_1800 IMG_1801

Positive vs Negative Student Balances

When you look at your bank account you work extremely hard to ensure you always have a positive balance. By having a positive balance you are able to pursue so many options in how you may use that surplus. When you are not able to keep a positive balance, you become very limited in the options you have and may in the worst circumstance go bankrupt.

I look at each and every child and each and every family in that way. I start in September with a zero balance as I am just opening up that account. From the first minute I interact with each child as well as their family, I am either making deposits or withdrawals. Each and every positive statement I make, word of encouragement I offer, inflating vs deflating statement said, either builds that account or reduces that account balance.

When a conflict occurs (and it will) you are now having to look at the account you have created and will make a withdrawal as you help that child understand the choice they made and how to learn from it. If you have a built up a strong, positive balance with that child you are able to make that withdrawal without having any ill effects on the relationship that exists between the both of you. If it is a call home in regards to a negative scenario that occurred at school, the family’s reaction will be either supportive or defensive depending on the balance you have established at home with the parent(s).

I use a variety of tools to help foster a positive balance. The two most effective for me are ‘Sunshine Calls’ and rephrasing my comments when I react to the day-to-day events that unravel in my room. In a sunshine call I am truly just trying to send a positive message to each family about their child. It can be as simple as a comment about a great writing effort that occurred today, how their child read aloud for the first time in front of his/her peers or what a positive decision they made not make a small problem bigger. Over time I can actually hear the change in how the parent reacts to me once they recognize their child’s teacher is calling. Within a few months, the calls home are very sociable and appreciated by the family.

The second strategy took me a while to develop. I had to literally think about how and what I would say when events occurred. First I had to examine my approach and found that my initial comments were deflating or withdrawing from that account balance. For example if a student made a mess, I would say, “ You need to be more careful and not make a mess”. This type of statement always puts a student on the defensive. I am learning to rephrase my comments to be able to send a message but not put a student on the defensive. I now say “ Are you okay, accidents happen to everyone. How can we clean it up?”

A very unintentional but amazing benefit of this approach was that I was modelling for my students each day how to be respectful to each other in the way they communicate. Soon, this type of positive communication becomes the norm of the class. There are less and less conflicts between students simply due to the way they learn to communicate with each other and the people around them.


Ontario Student Record Search

Wow, we are already into the second month of this school year and I am not sure I really know my students very well yet. I have a working idea of who they are as students and as people but need to gather more information to help me with my programming. That is where using their Ontario Student Record (OSR) can help you gather further data to assist me  in this process.

I typically do not complete my OSR searches until after the first month of school so that I can establish my own opinion about them as learners. The OSR is a cumulative record of them as a student since their entry into the Ontario education system. It is a legal document that travels with them from community to community and school to school in Ontario. It is a valuable tool for any educator who is working with a student.

There is a wide variety of information that exists in a student’s Ontario Student Record. First and foremost are the provincial report cards from their time at school. It is here that a teacher can gauge where a student has typically performed in the various curriculae. In addition there is often a wide variety of other sources of information specific to that student. For example, there could be documentation around outside supports such as occupational therapy, early intervention, psychological assessments, legal documentation around custody, Family & Children Services involvement, suspensions, Individual Education Plans and Safety Plans. When you look at the back of the OSR you can see a history of whether a student has had a stable education in one school or whether their circumstances show multiple schools with little or no stability. I have had one student who was entering into his 8th school and he was only in Grade 4.

There is a combination of hard data as well as data that has a subjective component and is based on the interaction and opinions of adults. It is important to differentiate between the two. I am not saying you should discount in any way or ignore that data, but rather understand that the circumstances in which that data was obtained may have been affected by many outside factors. For the student who was entering into his 8th school, his OSR showed that he had difficulty making friends. That data was accurate but was also impacted by his inability to be in a single place long enough to establish friendships or the fact he knew if he did make friends, he would probably be moving soon.

The OSR search is most valuable to me for my at risk students. Students who I know come with challenges either from an academic or behavioural standpoint are the first ones I search, as they demand my attention immediately. When I have a firm understanding of what level of achievement my students are displaying I then look at previous report cards to help me. If for example a student is obtaining a lower mark in mathematics then what has been previously reported it prompts me to further examine my assessment data to ensure my determinations are aligned with my criteria.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the proper protocol of what goes in an OSR, who can access an OSR, where that OSR can be viewed and the responsibilities a teacher has in regards to filing information in a student’s Ontario Student Record. A really rewarding aspect of doing my OSR searches is that I get to see how they have changed over the years with their annual photo. I have attached a template that I use when completing an OSR search.









Harvesting Our Apples

It is that time of year when I am able to enjoy the labours of my endless hours of worrying, endless hours of commitment and endless hours of planning for my students. We call it our harvest time.

At the beginning of every school year a new group of students come into our program with a variety of dysfunctional behaviours accompanied by a lack of success in school and we always start with the same story. I bring out a group of apples in various conditions and ask them which one would they choose. Of course all of their decisions are based on what they see on the outside. Is it bruised? Is it ripe enough? Does it have the right shape as compared to all the other apples? But yet the best part of the apple is the part that nobody can see, the inside. That is who my students are. They are completely judged by what people see on the outside and from what they have experienced from the outside. Often, past teachers have no opportunity to experience what a wonderful, young person they truly are due to the violent, aggressive behaviour they exhibit. My first question to the students is how do we show people what an amazing person you really are on the inside. How do we show them your best part?

That is the question that was first asked over 10 months ago and after a year of academic and behavioural programming we have arrived at harvest time. They are now being judged for who they truly are and not what they previously looked like. Both the adults and students in Room 16 take great pride and enjoyment during harvest time. In our daily circles we are preparing them for that transition back to the regular world. That begins by revisiting awkward or negative scenarios that took place in our room, except at this time of the year we are able to laugh about it. The students shake their heads in disbelief as they have come so far and changed for the good so much, those past behaviours seem incomprehensible to them (self evaluation at its best).

They then begin to identify which strategies or skills have worked best for them over the year. They make a list of their most effective strategies, expressions or visuals and we put that together into a laminated bookmark. That is taken with them as they transition back to their next academic setting and becomes the foundation for their next year’s success.

I hope you are taking the time to enjoy your harvest time!

School Spirit

What is it? Where do you buy it? How much do you need? Who is responsible for it? Several weeks ago I was part of a re-opening ceremony for a former school that I had taught at in the 90’s. That once old, archaic building had been transformed into an architectural state of the art learning environment. As I watched special guests, children and their families and community members arrive you could hear the oohs and ahs as they entered and saw the amazing interior of the school. If you have ever bought a new home, a new car or anything new, you know the excitement that comes with it.

This is where my post shifts gears. It was not the shiny new building. It was not the posh interior that I was in. It was not the formality of the ceremony, nor the speeches, nor the prestigious opening ceremony that had impacted me. What struck me that night was the immediate feeling I had as I entered the building of being a ‘Wildcat’. It had been almost two decades since I was a part of that staff and community. Yet, that feeling of belonging, that feeling of loving to be there and that feeling of comraderie immediately overcame me. Of course the culminating event that cemented that feeling was when a friend and former colleague lead the entire crowd in the long-standing Wildcat cheer. The building erupted into an atmosphere that resembled a pro sporting event.

When I went home that night still on an emotional high I sat and pondered why I had not had that feeling in such a long time. What was it? What caused it to resurface? I have been in many school settings over my career and not every place created that kind of feeling. According to Wikipedia, school spirit is defined as the emotional support for one’s educational institution. There is no curriculum to create it. There is no instruction booklet on how to teach it. There is only the passion and commitment that the teachers bring to their classroom and school.