Forging An Environment of Innovation
By Carl Bull
Inherent in school administrators is the desire to forge solutions to all manner of issues: special education, personnel, facilities, pedagogical, parental and many more. We draw upon both our creative and logical facilities to execute these processes. How can we utilize this natural innovative spirit to lead our staff and students into the future? Over the years I have tried to challenge myself with this inquiry and will detail some of the response that has been a collective effort by colleagues, students and parents with whom I have had privilege of working. My hope is that this description will also be part of a greater dialogue on how to create an environment of innovation, between us but also in regards to the one that connects you to your colleagues and staff.
The timeframe of this discourse begins about twelve years ago and continues today, but is heavily focused on my time as Principal of St. Anthony (2011 – 2016), a rural school in Harrow with approximately 200 students. Here, our innovative focus was to incorporate technology in a compelling way, but additionally took the form of special education, mindfulness, and various curriculum initiatives. Ultimately, I believe that innovation is best understood as a mindset, a willingness to consider options and take risks, and it starts at the top.
Destination Innovation: All Hands on Deck!
Arrival at St. Anthony as principal brought with it a school council request for a lego robotics team. Over the next five years this would evolve into the implementation of a comprehensive school technology program that encompassed grades JK through 8. Incorporating elements such as coding, utilization of the google platform, the concepts of digital citizenship, robotics and 3D printing, our goal was to ensure our graduates were equipped with both skills and an excitement for the future. Elements of this plan were provided from conferences attended, ministry memoranda, board personnel, staff, parents, community groups, and my own vision regarding the provision of a range of learning experiences that could transcend the traditional view of a classroom.
Despite Harrow’s diminutive size, it is a manufacturing and innovation hub in the Windsor-Essex region. We hoped to connect to and reflect this quality through the acquisition of the first 3D printer in an elementary school in our region, which was donated by a prominent community member. To launch the arrival of this device, we organized a hands-on math day/assembly, as well as had media and board representation to facilitate our celebration. In short order the 3D printer was integrated into the grade 7 and 8 math classes, as well as a joint grades 2 and 8 social studies project. (The innovative use of 3D printers continued at my next school, St. Williams, which is outlined in a recent blog I wrote for CPCO).
With our JKSK coding program underway (for the teacher description of this program please click here) as well as other elements for the junior division, our JK to grade 8 innovation vision had been achieved. The ‘feather in our cap’ was a design category win by two of our female grade 8 students on our inaugural visit to the annual roller-coaster design competition held at Canada’s Wonderland.
Invest and Empower People
Notwithstanding our modest budget, our school team made the decision to send four staff and myself to a one day google training seminar in Kitchener as that was the platform to which our board was migrating. It was not simply an excellent learning opportunity (where we ended up ahead of the curve), but also one to bond and demonstrate in a concrete way that PD would be supported. This culture grew and evolved into staff leading the grant-writing process that led to OECTA grants (one worth $9,000), and others, being secured by the school.
One of the most memorable moments on this continuum of empowerment occurred when one of the primary teachers connected as a new user to twitter with educators from Toronto. Ultimately an exchange of knowledge and ideas led us on a path to ‘tweak’ our approach to a challenging class. This development was met wholeheartedly by our school council and resulted in our little school pushing the boundaries for what we could do for our struggling learners.
Successful Innovation is Increased Staff and Student Capacity
…Bring as many people along for the ride!
An integral component of any initiative is developing staff capacity. Currently I am involved in a cross-curricular project using scratch for coding en français whereby the background will be a digitally modified image of a french scene created by the students. Thus the grade 8 teacher and I are learning the basic elements of digital photo-editing (paint.net/pixlr) and the french teacher and I are exploring various aspects of scratch coding as well as how this tool can be harnessed to instruct the French language. Spending time with colleagues demonstrates commitment, engenders sustainability, and models the life-long learner concept in a credible fashion.
While clubs and technology teams have their place, far too many educational jurisdictions gauge their ‘innovation success’ on pilot programs and experiences for limited groups of students. While acceptable in the minority of cases this cannot be true for the majority. The only real measure of success is “Did all the students in that class/grade/division get to participate and learn something?” If the answer to that question is yes then your school and system have successfully answered the call.
Harness the Potential for Student Leadership
We have had students prepare Youtube videos on 3D design and present to school council for funding initiatives, instruct teachers on various ‘how-to’ technology topics and liaise with members of industry for automotive part prototyping. In this fashion the trajectory of the student learner starts to achieve some self-definition, which is the most satisfying thing for any teacher to witness.
Ultimately, what you bring to the school as leader is defined by the messy intersection of your talents, school resources, and the needs of your community. I focus on the ‘needs’ element by imagining a situation where my mortgage is not safely paid and instead on the skill set I would need in order to take on a world that has moved on since my childhood. Seek out innovation as well as its implementation and mark this sacred time in your planner. As the years pass this will become some of your most treasured times with colleagues and pupils. It has been that way for me, good luck with your journey!
Carl Bull is an elementary administrator for WECDSB, dad, husband and lover of all things outdoors. Recently he has supported the CPCO PQP program as a TELL mentor (Technology Enabled Learning and Leading) advisor and is a proud member of CPCO. You can connect with him on twitter at @carl_bull.