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Recent labour strife in BC’s public schools has caught the attention of everyone and has shaken the fabric of daily life at school.
This spring our district has experienced a number of storm clouds:
- staffing and operational cuts due to district deficit
- much talk about an under-funding of public education
- labour conflict between teachers and employers/government
- impacts on students by all of the above
In the May 28th Vancouver Sun, columnist Pete McMartin opined that “The only victim in the war of the classroom is public education”. Public education is indeed taking a lot of body blows in the media these days. I too am bothered by the effects of the labour dispute on the credibility of our public system. As a public school educator, this hurts! I believe strongly in public education and have devoted myself to its causes, both as a teacher and as an administrator, for 23 years. And at the end of the day, I believe our system will survive this latest crisis and continue to excel. So, why do I still believe in public education and in SD43? Here are my five main reasons:
1. Outstanding achievement results. Did you know that the Grade 12 graduation rates in School District 43 are 92%, second highest among all districts in the province and about ten percentage points higher than the provincial average? Canadian public education also ranks among the best in the world. For example the international PISA testing results for 2012, which compare the academic skills of 15 year-olds across the world, ranked Canada 14th in Mathematics, 6th in Reading, and 11th in Science. By comparison, the USA ranked 36th, 24th, and 28th respectively. There is much debate about the statistical validity and sampling in PISA but as a snapshot of performance it affirms the work being done in Canadian public schools.
2. Inclusion. We take all students. Many private schools screen out students based on abilities or exclude a large sector of the population because of tuition fees. Public schools accept all children and youth and do not discriminate on the basis of ability, family income, or religious beliefs. I am proud that we actively pursue our mission to teach all students. Our district’s motto is Learning Without Boundaries, meaning that we go beyond traditional means in order to help every child or teen to strive toward their potential. Educating all children requires proper funding and resources. As opposed to private schools that must draw from relatively small talent pools of expertise, large school districts like Coquitlam employ many educators that have expertise in a large array of specialized fields. No education system does a better job teaching all children!
3. A strong democratic society is built on universal access to education. The citizenry of a democratic society must be literate and educated to meet the demands of modern economies. This can only be achieved through public education. Privatized education leads only to greater stratification of society and ultimately a minimal education for the lowest income groups. Reduced literacy rates, limited opportunities for post-secondary education and training, and a less qualified work force would result from a weakened or diminished public education system. Conversely, a strong public education system like ours creates the greatest opportunity for the nation’s children of today to build a strong society for tomorrow.
4. Public schools build communities. If the children in a neighbourhood attend the same school then relationships are forged between the children and also their families. This improves community connectedness, one of the most crucial factors in the social and mental health of our citizens.
5. The people who work in our schools. Educators represent the best of our society. Every day I witness first hand the dedication of teachers and support staff to student learning and well-being. Newspaper columnists who write about the “9-3” work day of teachers couldn’t be more wrong. Most teachers work long days and put in weekend and evening time throughout the year, especially during report card season. This is not unusual in our modern economy; people in all professions uphold a strong work ethic and work long hours. Teachers are no exception and I don’t like it when they’re portrayed otherwise. I’ve met few teachers who don’t willingly spend their own money to buy extras for their classes. Public school teachers face incredibly diverse groups of learners, a vast array of abilities and needs within a single class, and the often conflicting pressures to properly prepare children for the 21st century yet to uphold traditional education practices. I’m proud of the work our public school teachers do. The media spotlights the outliers, those few teachers who break professional or moral norms. But talk to those who see the work of teachers firsthand and you will get a much more positive and informed perspective.
I’m proud to work in our public schools in BC, one of the strongest school systems in the world!
These of course are my opinions… I invite you to comment and express yours.
I received some very positive parent feedback about my article last month on how we can help build character in our children. My hope was that this article would reassure parents that their job is not to protect their children from all conflict and adversity, but rather to support them and “allow” them to experience child-sized challenges. As a parent myself I do need reminders to take this approach!
Let’s now shift from a proper parent’s approach to adversity to look at how a child should approach challenges and adversity in their lives. Enter Matt Hallat, an amazing role model on facing obstacles. On April 23rd I surprised students by having Canadian Alpine Paralympian Matt Hallat come and speak at an assembly. (I had told students about Matt during the Olympics and we “adopted” him as our athlete during the Sochi Paralympics). Matt spoke openly with students about his experience losing half his leg to cancer at age 5. He told the story of how he overcame his physical disability to play baseball as a child and then later became a competitive skier.
Perhaps his most inspiring message related to his recent experiences at Sochi. He proudly told about his amazing sixth place finish in the slalom. But even more importantly he described how he crashed in two other races, including his fall only two gates from the finish line. He explained that he was just as proud of these races, because he gave it the best he had and that he so appreciated the opportunity to represent Canada. In sum, he knew what obstacles he had faced and worked so hard to overcome to get to that place. Life, just like skiing, involves focus and maneuvering around gate after gate.
Later that day many students wrote about what they learned from Matt’s talk. One student wrote:
“You can do anything you set your heart to. Matt showed us his leg that got amputated. For me it was cool but that’s not the point. You taught me that life isn’t easy but always keep your dream even though it’s hard. Go Matt Go!”
I shared students' writings with Matt, he responded, "These are some awesome letters, thanks for sharing. I'm glad I could make a small difference and can only hope that the kids chase their own dreams."
Withstanding adversity...bouncing back from defeat...persevering through trial...delaying gratification; these are some of the definitions of a much discussed term these days, that being (for lack of a better term) "character". In previous newsletters I've referenced Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed, and how it supports CRE's focus on building emotional self-regulation skills in our children. Tough talks about the importance of building character in children as a key to their long term success and well being in life. For example he cites a study showing self-control, not IQ, is the best predictor of a student's Grade Point Average. I recently heard a child anxiety expert state that stress management (I.e.,the ability to work under pressure and delay an impulse) is the number one predictor of success in university. This makes sense doesn't it!
Why then do we as parents and/or caregivers sometimes pass up the opportunity to help our kids build character? Stop and think about all the choices we unwittingly make as adults that keep our children from learning life lessons that would serve them well in the future. Take the example of when a child is facing a challenge that in all honesty is a good "child sized" challenge to be faced. Maybe it's a homework task, a difficult fingering exercise on the piano, or a minor conflict with another child. All too often we as parents jump in too early and save the child from facing a problem and trying to solve it using their own means. We see that the child will attempt to solve the problem using a faulty strategy. We could see the long term value of allowing the child to use that faulty strategy and therefore faltering or even failing but learn. We could realize that the child will not be permanently traumatized from the experience of failing and coming to a place of futility and truly seeking another way to succeed. But instead we often intervene and spare the child of going through a true learning experience. Perhaps we do this in the name of sparing their self-esteem or because we believe the child's shortcoming will reflect poorly on ourselves as parents or as a family. Unfortunately, another opportunity has come and gone to help our child build his/her character and to have the experience of failing at something and then persevering.
Now to be clear, I am not talking about standing idly by when a child's safety is at risk. Nor am I talking about leaving children to their own devices when facing significant challenges (not child-sized ones) that could scar or traumatize. But I do raise my eyebrows at times when parents intervene on their children's behalf and come to a too-quick rescue; an opportunity for their child to learn a truly valuable life-lesson has been passed up. Why are we so quick to rescue our children out of a situation that could develop their character and therefore ability to be resilient in the face of future challenges? Wouldn't it be better when our children are young and facing "low stakes" problems to sometimes allow them to stumble and learn from this experience? Perhaps we would be well served by sometimes thinking of our roles as being our children's "life coaches".
I recently read a gripping account of a mountaineer who fell into a crevasse on the glacier-covered slopes of Mount Rainier. Jim Davidson's The Ledge recounts his courageous and harrowing vertical climb up an 80-foot ice wall out of the crevasse. This true story is a dramatic example of the value of character. Drawing upon his experiences facing challenges as a child and a young man under the gentle and honest support of his father, Jim finds the strength, determination and resilience to climb inch by agonizing inch to his survival. In the most challenging circumstances, with his life in the balance, he is well served by the fortitude and "grit" he has developed by facing lesser challenges earlier in his life.
As adults we can each point to trying circumstances and trials, past and present, that test our character and resolve. We must realize that our children will also face adversity in their lives. What are we doing to prepare them for these?
M. Peters, Principal
How well is your child developing “character”?
In Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, he describes a famous study back in the 1960s when a preschool experiment took place in a low income, at-risk neighbourhood near Detroit. The researchers created a high quality, two year preschool, randomly chose half the kids to go to the preschool and tracked those who went to it and those who didn’t over the next 40 years. They did this to see the effect on academic skills for the preschool kids. At first they found that the preschool kids had better cognitive skills in the primary grades than children who did not attend preschool. They were disappointed though to find that beyond primary their skills leveled out and there was no difference. They tracked these children over the next 40 years of their lives and to their surprise they found that the preschoolers were much more likely than the non-preschoolers to:
· graduate from high school
· have a job at age 27
· more likely to be earning about the poverty line at age 40
· less likely to have been arrested or to be on welfare
These findings led to questions about non-cognitive skills and what these children learned in the preschool that would help them succeed in life, “character” skills such as:
· persisting at a task or at work that doesn’t immediately reward you
· delaying gratification
· making and following through on a plan
A study like this shows the huge importance of our focus on self-regulation. Yes, we want to teach academic skills to our students. But we also want to help our students learn skills for life. One of the essential skills that Tough discusses is resiliency, the ability to withstand failure or adversity and go on to achieve success. At CRE our work with self-regulation is focussed on teaching students strategies to cope with disappointment or anxiety and manage their emotions properly so that they can cope and even find solutions to their problems. Let’s be clear: children do need adults to help them resolve issues and manage the ups and downs of life. Excessive anxiety can be a crippling challenge for kids and they need the help of parents and professionals to treat anxiety issues. But they also need adults to teach them to be independent in handling kid-sized challenges.
I sit here high above the ice at Port Moody Arena and have two different perspectives on the scene below me, children's skating lessons. On one hand there is an organized pattern of movement. Groups of children are stationed evenly across the large ice surface, each of which is led by a green-jacketed instructor. There is a pattern of motion as each group glides in formation in deliberate sequence. I am impressed with the instructors ability to organize dozens of children into separate groups at different ability levels. On the other hand, as I look at individual children, including my own, there are the individual differences and uniqueness of each child on the ice. Within the group's organization each child skates in his or her own unique style. This child holds his hands well out from his body, like a bird soaring in flight. That child swings her arms forward and back like a marching soldier. One child uses long strides, Another child moves in short stuttering steps. There is a certain randomness and awkwardness in each child's skating; any given child seems precariously close to falling at any moment. Some children need much support from the instructor, others progress with little.
Two perspectives, two different views of children learning to skate. These perspectives parallel our children's experiences growing up. On one hand they move in organized patterns, all following similar steps in their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. There is a certain predictable pattern in how children grow and move toward adulthood. However there is also a uniqueness and randomness to each child's growth and development. Toddlers learn to walk and speak at different rates. Elementary children learn to read, write, do arithmetic, get along with others, and organize themselves at varying rates and in different ways. Teenagers learn to solve problems, make decisions, and understand their identities with varying rates of success. Our children grow up as a member of a group, but also as unique individuals.
Our work at Coquitlam River Elementary to educate children reflects these two perspectives. This is seen in our school-wide work with self-regulation. We have organized overall programs and strategies to systematically teach our students to identity their feelings in any given situation and to manage their emotions so that they can focus and learn. Yet we also as educators appreciate that every child is at a different stage in his/her emotional development and ability to regulate emotions. Any one child will therefore not reach emotional maturity just by experiences, programs, and group lessons. Instead there is also a need for the child to be shepherded and supported on an individual basis. Each set of life circumstances presents an opportunity for the child to learn about him/herself and develop character and his/her ability to manage. This is why the individual child needs strong attachments to one or more adults in his/her life. Child-Adult attachments cannot be ignored. It is essential that every child has at least one adult, preferably a parent, that they can trust, talk with, and be unconditionally loved by through all of life's ups and downs. Our goal should never be to protect them from challenges, taking risks, and even the occasional failure. We want to raise young men and women who are able to cope with adversity, solve problems, and show "grit" and determination to achieve their goals.
Parents, take time in your busy lives to explore your child's experiences through their eyes. Ask them what they think and how they feel about something that's happened to them that day. Share your adult wisdom about how they could have handled it. Maintain a mindset that although your job is to do yourself out of a job one day as the parent (i.e., where your child can be independent), that independence is learned through dependence. Our staff work with students in these ways each and every day, but we need your partnership if we're going to achieve our ultimate goal of preparing our children for the life ahead.
At last month's parent workshop evening about self-regulation we shared about ways of helping our children label their feelings (eg the Mood Meter) and managing their (and our own!) stress levels. We discussed using "mindful breathing" to help children self-calm and think rationally. Our goal is that these strategies will be used at home as well as at school. Your child will be emotionally stronger because of it, and will be more successful in dealing with life's inevitable challenges.
Coquitlam River staff have begun teaching strategies to help students self-regulate. Teachers are using the MindUP program to teach students about the key parts of the brain and how they work to help us manage our emotions and make good decisions. Students are learning to stop and breathe to calm themselves and therefore be ready to learn. Students are taking sensory breaks when they are anxious or agitated.…. Signs of these practices are appearing around the school!
- A primary student learning to read is complimented by the teacher. He looks up and says, “I have a very good hippocampus” (!).
- A teacher is teaching her class a new song about being self-regulated, sung to the tune of a popular song
- An intermediate student wakes up and tells his mother, “Did you know that your PFC (Prefrontal cortex) isn’t fully formed until you’re 24 years old?”.
- A teachers uses a “power up” space in her classroom to help primary students calm themselves and be able to listen properly in a group situation
- A parent reports that her child voluntarily takes a “body break” at home when becoming frustrated with homework
CRE staff are taking a number of steps to further their knowledge of self-regulated learning. They are working with Mrs. Marna MacMillan, Staff Development Coordinator, at monthly collaboration meetings to debrief their experiences teaching these self-regulation strategies and to get practical advice. A Self-Regulation Staff Committee is meeting regularly to coordinate school-wide activities and themes to help build a common language about self-regulation across the school. A team of key teacher-leaders are participating in a district network with other schools who have also focused on self-regulation practices. Monthly assemblies include videos and interactive discussions about managing one’s emotions when facing conflict or challenges.
Would you like to learn more about self-regulation? Parents are encouraged to attend PAC meetings this year to learn more about self-regulation and what it means for your child. Each month Mr. Peters will give a short presentation about classroom-based practices and “tools” that students are learning.
M. Peters, Principal
One of my annual summer traditions is taking my family to the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden every August. The Lynden Fair is truly a country fair, with plenty of cows, pigs, horses, goats and even bunnies on display. Did you know that pigs do not "eat like pigs" or "pig out." They prefer to eat slowly and savor their food! We enjoy the daily horse show in the grandstand, the carnival rides, and of course the food! (Love those curly fries).
One of the highlights for me is seeing the teenagers from the region’s farms who spend long hours in the animal barns tending to the feeding, cleaning, and grooming of their prize animals. Most of these teens are members of 4H clubs and create interesting and colourful information displays about their animals. They are polite, very knowledgeable about the animals, and work long hours during the fair. I am impressed by the level of responsibility they have been given by their parents. These livestock are often an important source of the farm income and for their well-being to be entrusted to teens (and even children aged 10-12) speaks to the trust and teaching that farm parents put into their children. For those of us “suburbanites” we can take lessons from farming families. Often our children are not given the same level of responsibility at home as farm children. I can see that the character and discipline that will result for these farm children will greatly aid them in their adult lives, even if they choose to leave the farm. I strive as a parent to cultivate these traits in my own kids. I have tried to give my own kids chores and responsibilities at home that have “higher stakes” but admittedly find this challenging. However I do place strong emphasis on being responsible for their schoolwork and learning.
At school we also strive to give our students age-appropriate levels of responsibility as citizens and as learners. You may be surprised to know that the greatest influence that parents have on their children's school achievement is through supporting their learning in the home rather than supporting activities in the school. "It is [parents'] support of learning within the home environment that makes the maximum difference to achievement." (See Harris & Goodall, 2007)
My goal as Principal is to see a strong partnership between school and parents that cultivates growing responsibility for every child, be they in Kindergarten, Grade 5, or somewhere in between.
As we start the school year let's encourage our children to be students who take responsibility for their learning and for being giving, contributing citizens!
Inspiring and amazing... these are the best words to describe my experience in the eight US National Parks* that I traveled to this summer with my family. Our driving odyssey took us through parks (and two National Monuments) in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Arches. If you have ever been to any national park in Canada or the US you will appreciate the beauty and accessibility that is offered to all. Our own journey was filled with wonderful sights, from the red rock canyons to breath-taking vistas to wildlife. The US National Parks have been dubbed "America's Best Idea" in that they capture the natural wonders and stories of that great nation. Like any place where people can escape the stresses of urban life, national parks offer the opportunity for people to reflect and gain perspective on life. In the words of the famous John Muir, America's "godfather" of the national parks, "man is redeemed by the wilderness".
Seeing the parks through the eyes of my children was a special delight. They loved the bison in Yellowstone, including the one laying down and snuffling in the dirt only metres from the trail we walked. My son was intrigued by the sandstone arches in Arches National Park and determinedly hiked uphill in the one hundred degree heat to achieve a closer view of Delicate Arch (the one featured on the Utah license plate). My daughter diligently completed a workbook and was interviewed by a park range in each and every park, thus earning Junior Ranger badges in eight park and two national monuments.
As an educator I was also inspired by the rangers who work in these parks. Their dedication to educating visitors young and old speaks to their commitment to protecting the parks and cultivating a rightful appreciation for having these amazing places. Park rangers do more than enforcing rules to protect the parks from human encroachment. They openly and willingly teach people about the natural wonders they are seeing. The ranger who led our nature walk in Grand Canyon showed us a Ponderosa pine split by a lighting strike and explained how these resilient trees withstand fire, even when three quarters of their needles have burnt. A ranger in Yellowstone told the story of the reintroduction of wolves into this park and how this has improved the ecosystem balance with other wildlife. And the guide in Bryce Canyon showed us an ancient Bristlecone Pine, estimated to be 500 years old. These lessons are more than “natural trivia”; they teach us that in some ways we as humans are guests on this planet and that there is more to life on Earth than the activities of its human inhabitants.
We are fortunate to have these parks, protected and preserved for current and future generations to enjoy. As described in the enthralling PBS series on the national parks, "natural beauty elevates the human spirit".
* National Parks and Monuments visited, in order:
Grand Teton NP
Capitol Reef NP
Grand Staircase Escalante NM
Grand Canyon NP
Bryce Canyon NP
For my brief talk I would like to first look back, then look forward.
As you look back at your years here at CRE, think about where you started and who you are today. You entered Kindergarten, you were 4 or 5 years old. Chances were you could say the alphabet, perhaps you could write your name, and you knew how to count to 10 but not 20. Over your 6 years at CRE you have grown in many ways, learned many life lessons and academic lessons. You have come to realize that school means many things:
· a place to learn about this fascinating world we live in
· a place to make friends and be with friends
· a place to challenge your skills, be they academic, athletic, or artistic
· a place where you can serve your community and practice many ways of being a leader
Six years is a long place to spend in one school. In fact, you will likely never spend as long in one single school again in your whole life (middle-3, secondary-4, college/technical/trade school-4). One thing that is for sure is that you will definitely never again change as much from the time you enter to the time you leave as you did here.
Look around the gym: there are teachers and staff members here that have taught you, coached you, and led you. Maybe your kindergarten teacher is here, or your primary teachers, or your student services teachers. Before you leave today I have one final assignment for you: to say thank you to at least one staff member here at CRE who has touched your life and helped you along your journey.
Looking ahead, I hope you see that the world is full of potential for each and every one of you. You are leaving your teachers here behind, but your greatest teachers are going with you. They of course are your parents. As you start your middle school years, continue to look to your parents for guidance, for modeling, and for inspiration. They love you and care about you and would do anything in the world to guide and support you as you step into your teenage years and beyond.
Look after your friends. Expand your circle of friends and make new ones.
Middle school will present many opportunities for you to explore and expand your talents, deepen your academic skills and knowledge, and be a leader and a helper. Seize those opportunities!
This spring you learned about famous explorers: Simon Fraser, Ferdinand Magellan, George Vancouver, and so on. Take inspiration from them. These great explorers did not know what they would find when they set out on their journey. Others went before them, but they knew their journey would be different and that new things would be explored and discovered. Many have gone to middle school before you, but make your next journey yours.
Sixty years ago last month Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the great explorers in the last century, became the first man to climb Mount Everest. Hillary once said, “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” I hope that each of you will strive to accomplish extraordinary things in your years ahead.
I've been enjoying a fascinating biography, Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning George Washington - A Life. This lengthy work investigates the real man behind the typical two-dimensional Washington as legendary and stoic larger-than-life father of a nation. Of particular interest to me is the discussion of Washington's leadership style and how it was refined over the decades as he progressed from military colonel to plantation owner to colonial legislator to Commander-in-Chief of the continental army to President. Washington's amazing achievements were in large part due to some effective leadership qualities that would be well utilized by those in leadership positions today. Allow me to share some thoughts:
Build a small network of trusted colleagues: Although Washington was usually reserved and distant toward those under his command, he made a point of building an inner circle of confidantes, those with whom he could discuss openly issues and concerns. He was often over-whelmed with the problems of raising and commanding a rag-tag colonial army and found relief and support in letting his guard down with a few trusted high-ranking officers.
Be open to dissenting opinions and criticisms: Washington was often headstrong and resolute in his opinions and beliefs about how things should operate. Yet he never ducked when criticism or alternative viewpoints were directed his way. At the core of this was a genuine humility whereby he did not assume he had all the answers. He collaborated with other leaders and on more than one occasion changed his plans based on the helpful feedback of others. As President one of his signature moves was ensuring that his Cabinet included individuals like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton who would hold different perspectives than his own.
Show courage: Washington is to be admired for the courage he showed in battle and in making tough decisions. Throughout the Revolutionary War he was often seen sitting tall on his white horse at or near the front lines of battle, urging on his troops. His outstanding leadership in the most dangerous of circumstances prompted one soldier to declare, "I shall never forget what I felt ... when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were be a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself." (p. 282) Washington’s ability to be a leader who was present, hands-on, and emotionally involved provided great inspiration to those he led and resulted in amazing achievements.
Share the glory: Washington’s reputation reached enormous heights during the Revolutionary War. Arguably no American leader has ever been revered to the degree that he did as he led the way to defeat over the British military. Yet Washington consciously and eloquently deflected the praise away from himself to those he led. His published messages, even following some serious military defeats, often pointed out the courage and bravery of his men. He was fair-minded in admitting to mistakes he himself made and was never one to cast unfair blame on others.
Much can be learned from the example of great leaders like George Washington. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a close study of Washington can equal the reading of a thousand articles on leadership.