Leaders: Born or Made?

Clearly inspired by yesterday’s post, Gaping Void asked the age old question today: Are leaders born or are they made?

Great question.

Hugh goes on to answer:

We won’t argue which side wins, but we all must agree that made or born, it starts from within. A drive to make a difference to those around you. A simple idea that many people just don’t get.

And summarizes his thoughts with this great image:


This post is dedicated to Marina Gijzen, a born leader who has taken the time to develop and refine her leadership skills, driven by a pure vision from within to make a difference. You are exceptional – go for it!


A Successful School Leader…

How would you complete that sentence?

What qualities are needed to be a successful school leader?

This is something that is important to me.  I have worked in a number of different schools in the 17 years that I have been teaching and it is becoming so much more important to me that I work for and with a principal and Head of School that possess the qualities of a great leader.  But what are these qualities?

For me, the qualities of a great leader are defined as:

  • Fearlessness: Not operating from a place of fear. Embracing the unknown.
  • Passion: Loving what you do and excelling at it.
  • Vision: Looking ahead, looking forward, embracing the unknown.
  • Action: Acting on one’s vision
  • Kindness: The world needs more of this.  Be kinder than necessary.

What would make your list?

Author, Jeremy Sutcliffe wondered the same thing: “What are the qualities needed to make a successful school leader?”  He asked this question and then published his results in a book (unimaginatively) called  8 Qualities of Successful School Leaders: the desert island challenge, published by Bloomsbury.

Here are his top eight:


  1. Vision
  2. Courage
  3. Passion
  4. Emotional Intelligence
  5. Judgement
  6. Resilience
  7. Persuasion
  8. Curiosity

In this article from the Guardian, the ideas behind the words are explained in a little more detail and make for interesting reading.

What kind of leader do you need?  What kind of leader are you?




Goodwill + Empathy = Compassion

I read a fantastic blog post by my friend and former colleague, Marina Gijzen.  Marina is an exceptional teacher who, in my opinion, embodies the very definition of a compassionate teacher.  If I had my way, I would make sure we lived in the same spot by the time my daughter is in third grade just so she could have the good fortune to have Mrs. Gijzen as her teacher.

Marina’s latest blog post, Do Unto Others As They’d Like Done Unto Them is fantastic. I love the post for its thoughtfulness, its insight, and the way it demonstrates Marina’s constant and consistent concern for the children in her care.

At the end of her post, she asks the question:

How would you assess your level of compassion in the classroom?


My friend Denise, just had her journey to create a family documented by a photographer.  Denise’s story is a testament to her tenacity, her kind heart, and her compassion. It is a beautiful story and one that is so lovingly told in Denise’s own voice: Click here for Video

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 10.49.29 PM

For more information on Denise’s story, click here.


Leadership, Teaching

The Parent Trap

Any excuse to get in another photo of my cute little girl.
Any excuse to get in another photo of my cute little girl.

I have always said that the beginning of a new school year is one of my favorite times as a teacher.  Aside from the school supplies (come on – who doesn’t love new school supplies!) there is that option for things to be different – better, stronger, more thoughtful, more personalized….better. I think the day I start a school year without wondering how it can be better is the day I need to stop teaching.

Last year I began my year with massive intentions. I penned a letter to my incoming students and their families and I was so ready for an awesome year. While the year did not pan out as I had anticipated, it was a learning experience nonetheless and as I begin this year, here are five things I have learned with particular regard to parents:

  1. Be straight up with parents from the beginning. This can be hard but it is worth it. If you notice something in their child, see if they notice it too.  Don’t be quick to ‘fix’ the child, but let the parents know that you know.
  2. Stop unproductive parent interactions immediately.  I had the unfortunate experience of a couple of sets of very negative parents who would randomly bombard me with emails that didn’t move conversations forward or seek to solve problems. I am sure this will happen again at some point. When it does, I will ask to meet with these people so that we can solve the issue in a timely manner. I know this sounds logical but you know the type of parents I am talking about and for me anyway, it can be tough to initiate such a conversation.
  3. Tap into your parent body and share your why with them. In as much as I was more challenged in a negative way by parents last year than ever before, I was also more challenged in a positive way by parents too. Our parents are smart, educated, thoughtful, caring people. In the past three years, they have provided me with some of the best PD I have had through the sharing of resources, books, websites, and the conversations we have had back and forth. Thankfully technology means these conversations will continue, and I hope will be enhanced by interactions with my new parent body too.
  4. Be clear in your expectations. I find when parents know what you expect, they are more comfortable with what you ask of their children. Again, I think this goes back to explaining why you are doing what you are doing, not just outlining the nuts and bolts of a task.
  5. Thank your parents. A lot. For everything. Always.

I was reading an article titled 19 Meaningful Questions You Should Ask Your Child’s Teacher. The list is thorough, challenging, and as the title states, meaningful.  It would also be quite overwhelming as a teacher to be asked all 19 in one session – the author suggests parents opt for one or two to start and work their way through them as the year progresses.

Here is the list:

19 Questions Your Child’s Teacher Would (Probably) Love to Answer

  1. What academic standards do you use, and what do I need to know about them?
  2. How will you respond if or when my child struggles in class?
  3. What are the most important and complex (content-related) ideas my child needs to understand by the end of the year?
  4. Do you focus on strengths or weaknesses?
  5. How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
  6. How is critical thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
  7. How are assessments designed to promote learning rather than simple measurement?
  8. What can I do to support literacy in my home?
  9. What kinds of questions do you suggest that I ask my children on a daily basis about your class?
  10. How exactly is learning personalized in your classroom? In the school?
  11. How do you measure academic progress?
  12. What are the most common instructional or literacy strategies you will use this year?
  13. What learning models do you use (e.g., project-based learning, mobile learning, game-based learning, etc.), and what do you see as the primary benefits of that approach?
  14. What are the best school or district resources for students and/or families that no one uses?
  15. Is there technology you’d recommend that can help support my child in self-directed learning?
  16. What are the most common barriers you see to academic progress in your classroom?
  17. How is education changing?
  18. How do you see the role of the teacher in the learning process?
  19. What am I not asking but should be?


As teachers, we often lament the lack of interest or involvement of our parents.  I wonder what we would do if these questions were asked of us?  Would we be able to answer them in a smart, eloquent way?

As a new parent, I am a long way off from my first parent-teacher conference in the role of the parent. My husband has already vetoed my right to speak with my child’s teacher as he thinks I will be too scary. I think hearing the answers to some of these questions would be really interesting and offer insight into the type of person my child will be spending so much time with.

Questions 4,7 and 11 are grounded in the idea of assessment and progress and would be ones I would both want to know about as a parent, but also ones I want to be able to give really clear, honest answers about as a teacher.  Anyone who answers question 17 by referencing Seth Godin would rocket straight to the top of my ‘best teacher ever’ list 🙂

How do you initiate or encourage these types of questions from your parents?

How do you ensure there really is a partnership between parents and teachers at your school?

Innovation, Learning

Weekend Reading: Rubrics, Red Lanterns, and Redesigning Math


Here is a round-up of three interesting articles to enjoy over coffee this weekend:


Grant Wiggins provides some really interesting insights into rubrics in his article How To Use A Rubric Without Stifling Creativity. Firstly, Wiggins reminds us what a rubric does:

It summarizes what a range of concrete works looks like as reflections of a complex performance goal.

He goes on to describe the process in which a rubric is best created and the importance of strong anchor papers or exemplars that illustrate the key points of a rubric. It really is a fascinating article. I have read it three or four times already and each time I am getting new things from it. We are in the process of examining the language arts scope and sequence at our school and will be thinking about the use of rubrics and exemplars in our classroom practice. This will be an article I will definitely be referring back to as I continue to synthesise my thinking on this topic.

Red Lanterns

My hero, Seth Godin, wrote recently on the Red Lantern and, with many schools beginning a new academic year, encourages us to think of employing a ‘red lantern’ philosophy in our classrooms, lecture halls, and institutions. He encourages us to “celebrate the Red Lantern winners” – essentially, applauding and encouraging those who finish last but with massive amounts of gusto, determination and drive.

He concludes his post with a challenge to educators everywhere:

How do we celebrate the Red Lantern winners instead?

What are you doing for those in your class who continually push themselves without giving up?

Redesigning Math

I am a huge advocate of the Khan Academy. What I want to work on in order to supplement my use of this phenomenal resource, is a map of PBL – Problem Based Learning – math tasks. I take my hat off to the incredible amount of work done by Geoff Krall in combing the internet and his own brain for ideas for such an approach in middle and high school math classes. His blog, Emergent Math, and the post on problem based curriculum maps is amazing and would take more than one weekend to peruse. His work goes down to a sixth grade level – an area he confesses needs the most work – so if you teach math at a younger level, like I do, you won’t find it easily transferrable but you will find it incredibly inspiring. If it leads me on a trail to PBL math maps for younger grades, you know I will share them!

Happy Weekend!

Creativity, Innovation

Ready to Make Your Mark….Again?


International Dot Day is coming up.  On or around September 15, 2013, over a million people in 79 countries have pledged to ‘make their mark’ in the spirit of courage and creativity.  Last year, I shared some resources for this day and for possible ways to connect the dots within your class, school, community and world.

Writing the phrase, ‘connecting the dots’ just now, reminds me of an inspiring leader and challenger of the status quo for the purpose of moving forward.  Will Northrop of “What If Concepts” is poised to help groups and individuals make their mark and uncover their purpose.  In working with him at my school last year, he reminded us that our students should spend more time connecting rather than collecting dots in their learning journey.  That it was important that their learning was meaningful, significant, relevant, engaging and challenging, and most of all that it helped them to connect to previous learning, their community locally and globally, and to their future learning, whatever that might look like.

I know there are teachers who are not in favor of ‘one off’ days of celebration as they prefer to integrate an understanding of the themes of these days into their program in a more holistic manner.  Whether this describes your philosophy or if you are someone ready to celebrate on the 15th, take a moment to reflect on the learning in your classroom and ask yourself, “Are my students collecting or connecting dots in my classroom?”

Happy Dot Day!

Dots made by my students last year on Dot Day.
Dots made by my students last year on Dot Day. Each dot had a diameter of approximately 70cm and was made using wax crayons, water color wash, and glitter – because everything is better with a little glitter!
Learning, Math


Today we were looking at the Khan Academy website.  The coaching dashboard allows me to see where the students are at in their learning.  It provides the following categories:

As we were looking at this, one student mentioned that they didn’t want anyone to know if they ever were in the struggling category.  The student was embarrassed to think that others would find out that they were struggling with a concept.

This reminded me of an article I had read recently, which I encourage you to read.  It brings up the idea of struggle and the cultural connotations around this word.  Depending on how you view struggle, changes the way you deal with struggles that you come across in your learning:

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

As we discussed this further, I shared with the students the idea of peer coaching.  In previous classes, I have had a “Can Help/Need Help” board where students have been welcome to add their name to either side depending on if they feel confident in sharing their knowledge with others, or if they would like a classmate to work with them.  This is just one strategy that will be used in the coming year to help further our learning.

What does struggle mean to you?


Success – What it really looks like.


I want to start by saying that I really like this quote. I think success can often be thought of as an individual pursuit and it is a good idea to think about it in terms of how others can be inspired by the things we do.

In thinking about success, I came across this video:

Loved it. A brilliantly simple reminder of how we all learn things differently. I showed it to my kids and then asked to them draw their own version of success and explain their drawing. Awesome. Do it with your class – it is great. Here are their responses:


Be Kinder, Love Biggest

I am a huge fan of Wonder by R.J Palacio and an equally huge fan of Mr. Tushman, the principal of Beecher Prep who encourages us all to:

…always try to be a little kinder than necessary.

I was therefore intrigued when a friend went to pick her (fabulously awesome) daughter up from a month of summer camp and described the address given by the camp director as “Mr Tushman-esque”.  I had to know more.  I looked up the camp website to find out who the director was, read his bio, and didn’t really think much more than how fortunate these kids were who had experienced a little piece of Wonder in real life.

That was about a month ago.  Yesterday, a story jumped out of my news feed inviting me to join the Teton Valley Ranch Camp in farewelling their director (the “real-life Mr. Tushman”) and provided a link to his parting words.  I read them and could immediately ‘get’ the Tushman reference.  Smart, kind, funny, and thoughtful.  Mr. Holland recounts a story in which a camper shared with her group that the greatest lesson she had learned at camp was “to love biggest”. Putting aside the grammar, he held on to her sentiment and went on to say:

To love with all you have, with a child-like sense of magic and wonder, this is the true spirit of TVRC. People have often commented to me that I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and I think in the end, I am proud of this.  I am proud of this because I try to not just lead with my head, but also my heart.  To pour my heart and love into everything I do daily – this, I believe will lead to a life fulfilled.

– Tom Holland, Teton Valley Ranch Camp

And right there is the connection to Mr. Tushman.  Mr. Tushman and Mr. Holland are leaders who both use their leadership position for good. They hold positions in which children and adults look to them for leadership and guidance and they choose to focus on things that matter: being kinder, loving biggest.

I don’t know Mr. Holland but I am certainly grateful to know that 15 years of campers, counsellors, parents, and families have had the good fortune to see a leader who takes a stand on qualities he believes are important, speaking not only for himself, but for his organization and emphasizing the values his community finds significant.

A few weeks back, I posted a quote from one of our first faculty meetings.  Part of that quote reads:

It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.

Haim G. Ginott

I don’t think it is hard to imagine anything but clear skies and warm sunshine at the Teton Valley Ranch Camp under Mr. Holland’s leadership.  Can you say the same for your style of leadership?

After reading all this, I went to my mailbox and inside was a package.  Inside the package, my own little piece of TVRC.  When I wear it, I won’t only be reminded of the awesome kid who sent me the shirt, but to choose to be kinder, choose to love biggest.