As I write this, I’m taking a risk. In my life, being a risk-taker has meant different things at different times. As a child, entering the doors of my kindergarten classroom when I didn’t speak a word of English made me a risk-taker. As a teenager, entering a new set of doors – this time in a secondary school in Italy – far away from the comforts of home and the educational system to which I had grown accustomed, made me a risk-taker. As a young adult, working endless hours to become the first in my family not only to graduate from university, but to graduate with distinction, made me a risk-taker. As an adult and a teacher, leaving a school community behind that I had come to consider family, to take on a role that was more challenging yet more rewarding than anything I could have ever imagined, made me a risk-taker. That brings me to today – to this moment – the moment in which I take perhaps one of the greatest risks of my life so far. I’ve always been a fairly private person, probably because of the fear of being judged for my ideas. Recently, following some very poignant discussions with educators whom I admire and respect, I realized the importance of sharing my thoughts and putting myself out there, so to speak. As I write this, I risk having my thoughts questioned, but if I don’t do this, I risk something even greater – not challenging myself to be the best educator that I can possibly be and thus knowing that I’ve done all I can to help students (not just my own but students I may never actually meet) succeed in life.
“Being realistic is the most common path to mediocrity.”
This quote is attributed to Will Smith. It really resonates with me because I’ve always considered myself to be idealistic. After all, the game changers in life are those people who choose to dream big and don’t let anything get in the way of achieving those dreams. However, a dream is just that unless there is passion involved. I love to learn, collaborate, and lead, am passionate about teaching and doing what’s best for students, but this dream I had, only grew into my own version of an idealistic reality once I was given the opportunity to be part of an experience that would forever change my life.
After having been given the honour to teach and learn from Intermediate students for seven years, I was invited to embark on a journey that would prove to be the biggest learning curve in all the years that I have spent teaching. On September 6th, 2011, my life as an educator, but more importantly, as a learner, began to go down an unknown path. That day would prove to be the beginning of many risk-taking experiences for a select group of people, myself included.
I am currently the Learning Resource Teacher at DSBN Academy, the first school of its kind in the Niagara Region in Canada whose main focus is on empowering students, through academic and social support, to become the first in their families to graduate from a post-secondary institution. These young men and women are some of the most resilient people with whom I’ve ever had the privilege of working. Many of these unique individuals walked through our doors this past September not believing in themselves and afraid of the unknown. Yet together with their parents and guardians, they decided to take a risk. In the midst of this fear, they were courageous enough to walk through the Academy’s Doors of Excellence, and begin a journey that would prove to be unlike any they had ever experienced.
As I work with these students on a daily basis, in particular, those that are at-risk, I marvel at the strength and perseverance of many. At the same time, I see firsthand the challenges that they face, similar to challenges that I and many others have also faced, and how collectively as a faculty and thus as their mentors and teachers, we also have a steep but attainable climb ahead of us. We need to find a way to support these students and encourage them to be committed to striving for excellence, even when going through struggles.
This has proven to be a big challenge. We know why these things are important, but we need to develop a solution. How do we keep students intrinsically motivated enough to see past these struggles? How do we encourage them to view mistakes as opportunities to learn, as opposed to setbacks? How do we instill a desire to embody the traits that we model for them beyond the school walls? How do we best help them to become responsible risk-takers?
As educators, we must foster a culture of belief, safety, commitment, optimism, respect, and excellence. I often find myself reflecting on the following: do external obstacles play a bigger role in the lives of our students or will they be able to cross these barriers when given the chance to thrive in a caring, nurturing academic environment? Can a team of educators and support staff who collaborate to hold students accountable, help them reach their true potential, while still being empathetic to their barriers?
This past year, our focus has been on creating a positive, inclusive culture at our school. As the year comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on how far we’ve come, yet how far we still need to go. That brings me to the creation of this blog….
I’ve recently decided to see what the hype about Twitter was all about. I know, I know – those of you who have been on Twitter for a long time are probably shaking your heads as you read this right now. I am definitely a newbie, but I don’t mind being the new kid on the block – it’s given me the chance to collaborate with the best of the best in the field of education. I can confidently say that after being part of the Twitter universe for about a month (so sad that I didn’t make the leap sooner), I am a huge advocate of this site. In my opinion, it’s one of the ultimate forms of collaboration. Twitter truly is filled with master leaders…and learners.
“If you want to be a carpenter, then you apprentice with a master carpenter. If you want to be a learner, then you should be apprenticing with a master learner too.” – Dr. Gary Stager
It’s no longer acceptable not to be a part of Twitter. It is imperative for our own personal growth and that of our students that we begin networking with educators worldwide. My journey on Twitter led me to Parkland School Division in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada (#psd70). With the support of my administrator as well as the senior administrators at my own district (District School Board of Niagara), I’ve had the opportunity in the last couple of days to visit some schools that caught my attention for various reasons….
Yesterday morning, I visited Muir Lake School and had a great discussion about Google Apps for Education as well as the vision that Muir Lake Administration has for its staff and students with regards to being forward thinking and making change with the use of technology. They see the value in shared leadership and are in the process of developing teams based on the expertise of different staff members. These teams will be encouraged to learn together, and share their learning with the rest of the staff as well as with educators worldwide via their own blogs. Through the effective use of technology, they are literally opening up the world of learning for their students. They truly are preparing their students for our ever-changing world,
My next stop that day was at Greystone Centennial Middle School. My goal was to speak to the staff about looping and how they feel it has impacted student growth and success as well as to see the physical layout of the school, which is different from any other school I’ve ever been to. At Greystone, students stay together and with the same homeroom teacher for a 2 or 3 year loop. Staff have found that it helps with fostering relationships and provides consistency, which is critical for student success. They also have “optional” classes embedded in their timetable once a cycle, which gives students the opportunity to choose courses that interest them. The school’s classes are called “learning communities” and each community (usually made up of three classes) has a common space to share outside of its regular classroom setting. I was impressed by the amount of thought that was put into the actual layout of the school. This too is a factor that contributes greatly to the success of students because it lends itself well to team-teaching.
I left both meetings with great ideas and have already started devising a plan as to how we can best implement what I’ve learned in our own schools.
Upon reflection of my years as an educator, I have observed that one of the key ingredients to the success of a school (or a school district) is effective leadership. Great leaders recognize that the strength of an organization lies in the members of its team. Great leaders believe in and follow the idea of shared leadership. Great leaders not only earn trust, but trust in every member of their team, including students and parents. Great leaders care and go above and beyond. Great leaders understand and value the importance of cultivating relationships between themselves and staff, students, families, and the community. Great leaders are revolutionary because they have the vision and the drive needed to transform lives in inspiring ways.
Throughout the course of my career, I have been fortunate enough to work with several inspiring leaders – each one different but effective. I have grown immensely because of the mentors whose examples I strive to emulate. They’ve asked questions that have challenged my thinking, thus encouraging me to think outside of the box. They’ve modelled and fostered an environment of collaboration through listening and offering good advice, and they’ve believed in me, which in turn, has allowed me to believe in myself. Above all, the leaders that I’ve chosen as mentors have always put students’ needs first. How much of this carries into the overall culture of the school and how deeply does effective leadership impact student learning? I can share my thoughts about this, but I’d like to hear what you have to say….
A framework for success is not meant to be a guide for all schools. Rather, administrators need to look at the needs of their students and develop a plan that is suitable for the culture they’d like to build based on best practices. My visit to Parkland School Division and what I plan to share with my district’s administrators and colleagues will be a step down the path that we must take to best prepare our students for being collaborative, risk-taking, critical thinkers in our society. Thank-you to all of the innovative, forward-thinking educators from Parkland School Division that took the time to work with me. They are leaders who recognize the power of learning and sharing, and whose commitment to the initiatives they’ve unveiled this year has made them leaders in education on an international level.
I’ve always believed that in life, things happen as they should. Everything has a purpose, even though it sometimes may not reveal itself for years. I know that the professional experiences I’ve had over the past 8 years, particularly this year, have led me to finding my true passion. I’ve always had a desire to learn, to evolve, and to better myself. When I look back at my professional life, I want to know that I did all I could to enrich the lives of students.
Life is all about taking risks and carving one’s own path. May the risk that I’m taking right now lead me to the learning necessary to bring about change. May this risk be the beginning of my journey towards my own idealistic reality.