Archive for Shared Leadership

Good-bye to an Incredible School Community!

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“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
– Lao Tzu

An inspirational teacher, colleague and friend shared this quote with me a few years ago and said that it spoke to the kind of leader I have been at Greystone Centennial Middle School. This, for me, was the ultimate compliment as it so accurately represents what I believe strong leadership is all about.

As the last days of this school year wind down and I think about leaving the school that means so much more to me than just a place where I show up to work each day, I do know that it is the right time for me to go. I know that my work at Greystone is done, I know my aim is fulfilled and I hope that this amazing school community feels that they all contributed to what we have created together and that they can proudly say “we did it ourselves” …because they did!

I am grateful for an incredible opportunity that came my way when I was selected to be on the Administrative team that opened Parkland School Division’s brand new Middle School. We were invited to dream big and create a place that believed in the promise of our young adolescents. This was to be a school that was responsive to the unique developmental needs of this age group. Our ultimate goal was to design a place where teenagers felt a sense of belonging and would be intellectually engaged in important, meaningful learning. This was definitely no small task we were undertaking. We were filled with excitement as we designed and built a school community from the ground up. “Greystone Centennial Middle School…built on a dream, powered by an Inferno.”

Ten years later, we have learned so much. We have taken risks, made mistakes, improved and grown. We have questioned old ways of doing things, we have tried new approaches, we have faced tragedy and we have continued to move forward and get better. We have not stood still; we have not stopped challenging each other and our work, all in an effort to get it right for our kids.

Through it all, we have learned lessons about what is really important…and that is, none of us is in this alone. There is so much energy, opportunity for support and ability to innovate, when we work together – when we draw on the unique strengths that each of us brings to the school community.

This school community has taught me so much about resiliency, compassion, patience and continuous learning. Daily, I am reminded about how blessed I am to be doing what I love with people I love – a huge shout out to the staff, students and families of Greystone Centennial Middle School. I know you will continue to serve as a shining example for what it means to be a school community that provides everyone with a place to belong, a place that inspires curiosity and a place that holds high expectations for deep, relevant learning.

Once again, I am grateful for the next incredible opportunity that has come my way. I am looking forward to continuing with my own learning as I explore my new role as Parkland’s Divisional Principal of Innovative Leadership and Learning. I know that I will be leading and learning alongside some amazing people and I can’t wait to see where our work together will take us.

Greystone Hosts Our First Learning Day

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We stepped outside of our comfort zone at Greystone as we opened the doors to our school and our classrooms for a day of learning together last Friday. Our students and staff “walked the talk” of making our learning public, transparent and meaningful as we invited educators from our School Division and beyond to co-create a day of shared learning. Fifty teachers, administrators, district superintendents moved in and out of our classrooms talking to our students and staff about how learning is being made purposeful, deep and intellectually engaging at Greystone. We shared our practices and asked for feedback around the following topics:

– Formative Assessment through feedback loops, co-creating criteria, sharing learning intentions
– Thinking Strategies including Questioning, Socratic Circles, See-Think-Wonder, Chalk Talk and Debate
– Inquiry Projects that embed the Alberta Education Competencies
– Team Teaching
– Innovation Week
– Teacher Collaboration and Planning Time
– Flexible Block Scheduling
– Looping
– Alternative Classroom Design & Flexible Groupings of Students
– Mindfulness
– Bring Your Own Device Initiative

The day included sharing and conversation from our guests, too, as they joined and/or facilitated informal “EdCamp Style” discussions in the afternoon.

The highlight of the day was definitely our students! Our guests shared feedback with us about how well our students were able to speak the language of their learning as they described the work they are doing and the purpose behind it.

Congratulations to our Greystone Family for creating a day of memorable learning for each other and our guests. Thanks to all of our guests for joining us. Here are a few tweets from the day:

My Leadership Truths

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It’s been a while since I have posted here – not because there aren’t amazing things to share; actually, the opposite is true. There has been so much going on at Greystone this school year. The strong learning focus among students and staff this year has raised the bar in terms of what is possible when we are all committed to shared goals about how to provide powerful learning for our kids. The truth is, I am now seeing our teachers and students sharing the learning experiences themselves through their own blog posts and on twitter. As a result, I am not feeling as compelled to do the sharing myself…this is a good thing. The team doesn’t need me to capture the highlights in my blog posts – they are doing that on their own. This leads me to this blog post.

The above quote was shared with me a couple of years ago by one of our amazing Greystone Teachers. Since that time, it has become my favourite quote on leadership – and it is something I strive to live out in my work at Greystone Centennial Middle School.

I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately – mostly because I have the privilege to work in a school community that has so many outstanding teacher leaders. Throughout the past several years, I have been very keen to develop a deeper understanding around the concept of leadership and to this end, I have done a lot of reading, I have taken courses and I have reflected on my own experiences which have helped to shape my perspective on this topic. While it would be ridiculous to try and pull together all of my insights and understandings about something so complicated as leadership in one blog post, I do feel that I am able to share my own short list of basic truths for what I believe are crucial to success as a school leader. So, in no particular order, exemplary school leadership requires:

– skill in magnifying the strengths of others
– listening more than speaking
– having conversations that end with others feeling that the experience has left them better than they were before
– serving others and putting their needs before the needs of myself
– expecting the best from myself and others and seeing the best in myself and others
– objective ongoing observations of the complex school community dynamics in order to make an honest diagnosis of what needs to be done to grow and improve
– willingness to put ego on the shelf and do whatever it takes to make the organization better – including admitting to mistakes
– strong, clear, shared vision about what is important
– understanding that the vision can only be achieved with the combined efforts and talents of a dedicated team
– hope

That is all.

New Role ~ New Teams ~ New Learning

 

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Trish Spink joined our school Leadership Team this year as she took on the role of our Inclusive Education Lead Teacher. In addition, Trish demonstrated her incredible flexibility and collaborative spirit by team teaching in Learning Community 6. Trish and her teaching team re-designed our Media Centre to accommodate two classes of students. Working more closely with Trish this year and seeing her non-stop enthusiasm, proactive and supportive approach with students, families and colleagues has been a real highlight of my year!

Reflection – Trish Spink 2013/2014

 The Risks I Took:

Taking the Inclusive Education position was a risk for me.  I remember when I was approached with this opportunity my initial thought was that I could never do this alone and I now know that I was right. What I learned this year is that I didn’t have to do it alone, and with the support of an amazing team I loved this position.  The constant communication and collaboration made it so I always knew the direction to take and had confidence in my ability to do what was best.  I also appreciated and grew from the encouragement for ongoing professional development and learning.   A highlight has been working closely with Administration, our Learning Coach and outside services to provide students and families extra support.  I have seen the benefits of how wrap around services can improve learning and promote health and wellness.  By taking this risk and with the amazing support, I realize that I am thrilled to continue this career path.

What I Loved:

This year I had the chance to work with and on many different teams.  A highlight has been team teaching.  Not only did I share a classroom space but I also shared my students.  In the beginning I struggled a bit with giving up control but I soon saw the benefits and realized that we were a natural fit.  I believe that being able to utilize flexible groupings allowed us to better meet the needs of our students and support all types of learners.  We were able to build upon each other’s strengths and this was evident in our student’s growth and in the supportive learning environment within our classroom community.  My students have become more independent and their thinking skills have matured as a result of this environment.

What I am Proud of:

The past two years part of my professional growth has been having my students develop good questioning skills. This year my students continued to develop this skill and I am proud of the quality of their learning.  We have been very conscientious to start each learning task with questioning and there has been a natural progression to where our students are now more capable of coming up with good questions.  Collectively our team has created dynamic learning tasks where the students have interacted with various skills in order to reach their end learning product. I am also very proud of our progression with technology because we have made it meaningful for the students and it has enhanced their learning.

What I Learned Along the Way:

I have learned many important things and have once again been reminded not to take anything for granted and that my life and my work is a gift. I love to work hard, play hard and “not sweat the small stuff.”

Reflections on My Learning from the Year

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I thought I would share a favourite quote from Maya Angelou, who passed away this week, in recognition and celebration of her influence on so many people, including me.Through her challenges, her triumphs and the incredible messages she shares, she calls on all of us to share our stories – as they are so important in helping us discover who we are and how much each of us matters.

So, I chose this quote to reflect on and share because, for me, it is a reminder to let go of any guilt that is associated with past mistakes or failures. In fact, it aligns perfectly with what I believe is so important in the world of education and learning –> mistakes and failure happen to teach us how to get better…and when we know better, we do better.

Which brings me to a reflection on my school year – and how I keep knowing better and doing better every year. That’s the essence of what it means to be professionally, personally learning and growing always – embracing the cycle of  continuous improvement. This year has been no exception – I have learned a ton!

I submitted an “official” growth plan summary to my Superintendent, Tim Monds; however, I am reflecting more informally, on my incidental, unplanned growth and learning through this blog post…which will be the first of many posts that the Greystone Teachers will be sharing on their growth and learning from the year.

In addition to my formal learning goals from this past year, my additional learning has included the following:

  • I re-discovered what a resilient, caring group of people I get to work with each and every day (staff and students) as we faced the challenge of losing another young teacher this year. I wasn’t completely sure how this loss, only two years after the last loss we faced as a school community, would affect our students and our staff. The power of teamwork and the commitment of our staff to stay focussed on our students and their learning helped us to not only survive this tragedy, but to thrive and get stronger through the challenge.
  • I became absolutely humbled this year by the incredibly committed and talented team that I pulled together to lead our school community. After working so closely for the past five years with Tracy Lachman, Greystone’s OUTSTANDING Assistant Principal, I was not sure what to expect in Tracy’s absence this year. Middle school is a busy, unpredictable place and at Greystone, there is a high level of energy, flexibility and collaboration that is needed to keep the forward movement, growth and learning happening. So, after getting into some pretty established routines of work flow and “synergy” with Tracy, I knew I would need to be ready to embrace change as a new team worked together in the office this year. The team consisted of our Acting Assistant Principal, Jesse McLean, our Learning Coach, Claudia Scanga, and our Inclusive Education Lead, Trish Spink. Talk about a “dream team”…this group is amazing! I have heard that a great leader is someone who surrounds himself/herself with people who make him/her look good. Well, that’s definitely what I did with this crew – WOW! They are an incredible team and they truly make me, and more importantly, our school, look good. They are skilled at building relationships with our students, families, and staff. They are focused on developing the capacity of our teachers and support staff so that they can be effective in meeting our students’ learning needs. They are so well-respected among our entire school community…yes, they really make me look good! I can’t wait to continue learning from them and with them again next year.
  • I would like to focus on just one more significant insight I gained from the year – an insight into the staff that makes me proud to work with all of them. I learned just how much they care about doing what’s right for our kids. This sounds cliche, but they actually walked the talk this year when they agreed to blow up our schedule and re-organize their teaching assignments in order to meet student needs. The teachers were not happy with how the student learning was going – they weren’t able to do the kinds of in-depth, meaningful learning tasks with students that they had done in the past – they knew better, but the schedule was not allowing them to do better. So they decided we needed to change it up.Although we have not yet arrived at the best schedule or organizational arrangement, our staff has shown the kind of creativity, risk-taking and perseverance we are wanting to promote with our students in order to develop something really great at Greystone. We will continue to adjust our sails as we chart the course that lies ahead, but one thing I know for sure…it’s that at Greystone, the staff is committed to doing whatever it takes to get it right for our kids – no matter how many schedule changes, adjustments of class lists, re-organization of teacher assignments and teams it takes. For that, I am so grateful.

It’s been an awesome year and I am already looking forward to the new school year ahead…after a well-deserved summer break for all of us – happy holidays!

 

 

Walking the Talk ~ Teachers as Designers

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It’s been a while since I have felt so inspired that I needed to capture my thoughts, in the moment, following a NEW experience that I have been involved in.

The last few months have been engaging, exciting and have provided me with many experiences that have reminded me, daily, about what I love in my work – connecting with kids and community. There have been SEVEC Student Exchanges, a Sun Run Trip and a conference with my awesome school leadership group – Design Team; however, these are all experiences I have had before – nothing has really ignited a spark in me to reflect, write and share…until today.

Today was different. I decided it was time to walk the talk…be a risk taker, do something that was outside of my comfort zone, something that intuitively felt right.

Last week, Greystone’s Design Team attended the IDEAS 2014 Conference at the University of Calgary. A highlight for us was participating in Ewan McIntosh’s Design Thinking workshop. This workshop provided us with the opportunity to experience a step-by-step process which taps into the creativity, innovation and design thinking capacity that each of us possesses. The whole process is something we experienced as learners and it helped us to explore how we could and would use it with our students to build their capacity for developing these important competencies. I left the workshop, completely inspired, wondering how to bring this to all of our learners (students AND staff) at Greystone.

Timing is everything. Today, six days after participating in the Design Thinking workshop, our scheduled Professional Development Day took place. With the learning from last weekend, fresh in the minds of our Design Team, Greystone’s Assistant Principal, Jesse McLean, and I decided that we needed to apply our new learning to our school context. Today’s Professional Development Day was devoted to School Education planning for next year. Instead of the usual data review and collaborative work to determine what we needed to start/stop/continue in the lengthy, existing School Education Plan and Annual Education Results Report, we decided to work with staff on the Design Thinking process to create the “Best Year of My Life” for the 2014-15 school year at Greystone.

It was THE MOST ENGAGING School Education Planning experience I have been a part of…EVER!!! The feedback from the staff supported how I was feeling. Not only was today’s work engaging for our staff, but it also provided them with the opportunity to learn a process for how to be “designers”, an experience which we can work to develop with our students.

We ended our session this morning by getting the staff’s advice on next steps. They suggested that we post all of the work from the morning to continue to get feedback from each other on the ideas that were “sketched up” this morning. I am looking forward to taking their ideas to our Design Team and pulling them together into a plan for our work next year. Stay tuned, I know there will be more on this in the weeks to come…

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Not All Leaders Are the Same ~ But the Beliefs Should Be

I have been doing a little reading and reflecting on something I am passionate about –> Leadership. I just finished a book that one of my sons gave me for Christmas  – The Greatness Guide by Robin Sharma. It includes  advice for creating excellence in your personal and professional life. Many of the ideas contained within the book align with my beliefs. One chapter, in particular, includes a message I have tried to establish among the staff at Greystone. Sharma maintains that in order for an organization to get to greatness, every person on the team needs to see himself or herself as a leader.

While everyone needs to be a leader, not everyone needs to lead in the same way. That would be impossible. What is most important is that everyone within the organization needs to know their role; contribute their strengths and recognize that everyone needs to demonstrate leadership traits – regardless of their position.

What leadership traits should all leaders within the organization demonstrate? In my opinion, this is where the “official” leader of the organization is most needed – to set the example for what the beliefs of the organization should be. For me, this is the only “top-down” structure that needs to exist within an organization.The beliefs, or as Sharma calls them – leadership traits – that permeate a culture or organization are a direct reflection of what the “official” leader of that organization demonstrates through words and actions.

As the “official” leader of leaders at Greystone, I have a set of beliefs that I work hard to live out. I have shared these beliefs with my staff; however, more importantly, I hope I have put these beliefs into action, action that sets the expectation and example for all of the leaders at Greystone.

As the lead leader at Greystone, in no particular order, here are my top 10 beliefs:

10) Relationships, Relationships, Relationships! ~ People first…always!

9) Balance ~ Health & wellness first, family second, work third…this order is important.

8) Growth ~ We are all learners and we all have the potential to dream, imagine, create, innovate and grow. Setting goals, putting goals into an action plan and collecting evidence of growth along the way will help us continuously improve.

7) New Beginnings ~ We all make mistakes; mistakes are for learning and we must always recognize that everyone has the potential to change if given a fresh start.

6) Positive Energy is Powerful ~ We have the ability to create our reality through our thoughts and the way we interact with each other; as part of an inter-connected organization, we have the potential to be a negative or a positive influence on each other. At Greystone, our responsibility is to choose positive.

5) Communication ~ We must maintain open, honest, respectful communication among each other, our students and families, with the intent of doing what’s best for our kids.

4) Collaboration ~ When we build on the strengths and skills that each of our leaders can contribute, we are capable of creating far more powerful learning experiences for our school community than if we work in isolation.

3) Play Hard ~  Having fun and sharing laughter are what a healthy school community needs to re-charge in order to be our best for others.

2) Work Hard ~ Everyone needs to give their best; however, an individual’s best can vary depending on lots of other variables (i.e. health, family circumstances). My best is not the same as someone else’s best – this is an individual thing and we should not compare between each other.

1) I Believe in the Magic ~ Schools are amazing places, there is so much opportunity to be a part of something significant and special, as long as we remember to pay attention to all of the magic going on around us – be there, be present and be grateful.

 

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Everyone is a leader at Greystone but not everyone is the same. What should be the same is the belief system that exists through which we carry out our leadership responsibilities.

Leading Innovation = Vulnerability

I am excited about the future of education in our province. The new Ministerial Order on student learning and the work taking place around Inspiring Education and Curriculum Redesign means that our schools will see us focusing on helping our students develop these competencies:

 

This transformation of education will require courageous leaders in classrooms, schools, and districts who are ready to do things differently, explore new possibilities and risk making mistakes – not an easy thing to do in the world of public education. However, leading change, growth and innovation require that we step out of our safe, comfortable traditions and recognize that we need to be vulnerable in order to learn and grow together.

In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin writes,

Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable…It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.

Brene Brown writes about vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly .Brown shares how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. She describes how successful leaders get their people to engage and take ownership not by telling them to do something but by letting them come into the idea in a purpose-led way. Brown states that the job of the leader is to create the space for others to perform. This shift is from “having the best idea or problem-solving” to “being the best leader of people”. It’s a shift from controlling to engaging with vulnerability – taking risks and cultivating trust.

Brown shares that the way to develop an innovative “daring greatly” culture is to make the organization a place where honest, constructive, and engaged feedback is valued.  Brown states:

Where there is no feedback, there is no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.

Brown shares that this kind of culture is difficult to create, but not impossible. She suggests that feedback and growth thrive in a culture where the goal is not “getting comfortable with hard conversations” but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking and change, then discomfort should be normalized: “We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here – you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.”

The work we have ahead of us as we transform education in our province is going to involve risk taking, being open and vulnerable to making mistakes in order to grow and learn. Our schools will need to be places where trust is the foundation, where instructional practice is discussed and where individuals understand that everyone is a learner and needs to be open to giving and receiving feedback to move forward. It will be uncomfortable – but if it isn’t, then what are we really learning? What are we really changing?

 

Turning Vision into Action

This past school year, our Greystone Teachers collaborated on a year long process that was designed to build a shared understanding of what we should expect to see in classrooms that are meeting the needs of our learners. I have been asked by a few individuals to share what we did. Here is an overview of how our work unfolded.

As part of our yearly process of developing our annual goals for learning at Greystone, we looked at data from several sources – way back in the Spring of 2012. The data that interested most of us came from a fairly new tool we have been using – the Tell Them From Me Surveys – which provide us with student feedback. An area that stood out for us was around the intellectual engagement of our learners. In spite of all the work we have been doing at Greystone to develop our students’ skills in critical thinking and inquiry, we felt that we still weren’t getting it right. We needed to continue to make learner engagement a focus for our school…and we needed to define specific actions, strategies and ideas around what we should be doing in our classrooms to foster the engagement of our learners.

We developed an overarching inquiry question for our teachers that we revisited at each Professional Development Day the following year:

What do we believe about Learner Engagement and…

What is the evidence we are getting it right for our learners?

Not only did we revisit this question at each PD Day, we also connected it to the Vision and Mission Statements of our School Division:

Our Vision

Parkland School Division is a place where exploration, creativity, and imagination make learning exciting and where all learners aspire to reach their dreams.

Our Mission

Our purpose is to prepare, engage and inspire our students to be their best in a quickly changing global community.

We talked about what it would look like in our classrooms if we were living out these words and ideas. What would we see happening in each classroom if we were putting the vision into ACTION?

Specifically, here is what we accomplished over the course of the year:

PD Day #1

We asked teachers to reflect and discuss at table groups some of their experiences from the classroom. In particular, we asked them to share specific learning tasks, projects and experiences when they felt they were successful in engaging their students. We then asked groups to brainstorm words and ideas that captured what kids are doing when they are engaged. These words and ideas were represented on large chart paper that was shared and then collected.

Design Team Meeting

A group of teachers, who represent each grade level in the school, met to review all of the ideas that were shared. After MUCH discussion and wordsmithing, a more concise list of processes/skills/competencies was created:

Risk Taking ~ Learners are persevering to grow outside their boundaries.

Creating ~ Learners are thinking, acting, and engaging with ideas to discover possibilities.

Collaborating ~ Learners are open-minded to different perspectives in order to build an interdependent learning community.

Questioning – Learners’ natural curiosity is leading them to explore deeper learning.

Ensuring Authentic Learning ~ Learners are emotionally and intellectually invested in work that is personally relevant and deeply connected to the world in which they live.

Providing Evidence ~ Learners are an active part of the assessment and feedback process to move their learning forward.

 

PD Day #2

We kicked off the morning of discussion with the following video designed to keep pushing the vision of what today’s learner needs in order to be engaged.

Future Learning

After individual reflection and group discussion of the ideas in the video, we shared the 6 key areas listed above. Using a google doc, we asked teachers to collaborate with their groups and provide examples of how students demonstrate each of the 6 key areas. We invited teachers to comment, via the google doc, on the contributions that others were making.

 

Design Team Meeting

The group looked at the google doc and decided on next steps. We wanted the shared document we were co-creating to be useful to teachers and felt that all of the ideas that were contributed at the last PD Day should be included in a guiding document; however, we also wanted an easy to read poster that would be put up in each and every classroom. This poster would serve as a daily reminder for all staff members, students and parents of what learning is about at Greystone Centennial Middle School. Design Team felt that the poster needed some specific action words that would help to clarify what each of the 6 key areas looked like in practice. Design Team decided to go back to the staff one more time and have them help with this.

PD Day #3

We started our day by looking at the learning taking place in other schools and classrooms. We looked at David Truss’s blog from the Inquiry Hub in British Columbia and we looked at a video from the Inquiry8 Program at another school in B.C. After reflection and conversation, we asked teachers to come up with 3 specific action words for each of the 6 categories. We had teachers select their favourites and defend their choices. From all of these, we established a consensus and included these in our guiding document and in our poster.

Meeting with Graphic Designer

We shared all of these ideas with a graphic designer who suggested that we include students in on the process. We asked teachers to have their students create a drawing to represent each of the 6 key areas. All of the drawings were submitted to the Design Team and they chose one student drawing for each key area. This was given to the Graphic Designer. Several poster proofs were created and shared with Design Team for feedback. After a few adjustments, we agreed on a final draft which is now being printed and will be presented to each of our teachers at our back to school staff meeting for the upcoming school year.

In addition, the guiding document was shared with all of our staff before the end of our last school year. The final version, included here, will be given out, once again, when we return to school at the end of August. We will be using it to guide our practice, as the criteria for giving each other feedback and as a reference point for establishing our Professional Learning Goals for the upcoming year.

Learner-Engagement

I am very interested in getting any feedback about how we can use this document to keep our staff moving forward together in our learning. How did we do? What else could we do to make the ideas and actions contained in this document and the accompanying poster become something that all of us bring to life in our classrooms?

 

 

 

 

Learning to Say No – It’s a Good Thing!

This reflection comes from our Learning Community 8 Teacher, Matthew Stelmaschuk. Matt is a keen Math/Science Teacher who does a lot of extras for everyone around our school. He coaches, he helps colleagues with technology, serves as an ATA Rep for our school and he is AMAZING at building strong relationships with students, families and colleagues. Matt has agreed to be Greystone’s Acting Principal next year – his calm, solutions-focused approach to dealing with any situation makes him a perfect fit to handle our busy middle school when our administrators are out of the building. Have fun in Africa this summer, Matt!

Growth Plan Reflection

 

 

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