Changing Schools from the Inside Out

A year ago this month, based on the international popularity of a blog I had written for Huffington Post,  I was invited to speak at two conferences in Italy. And so it was that in October 2015 I travelled to Europe and presented my teaching ideas in Milan,  in Ferrara and in Florence. The above video was filmed in Ferrara and in Florence.

Sharing my ideas in Italy was quite a surreal experience because I had held these ideas for most of the three decades of my teaching career but had always encountered massive resistance to them from colleagues and from superiors whether in South Africa or in Canada.

But something has shifted within the education system and so what was considered too radical years ago is now being welcomed as a great new idea: that classrooms should be spaces that students find socially inviting, emotionally safe, and intellectually stimulating.

This coming summer I’ll be sharing these ‘radical’  ideas during a three-week course I’ll be teaching at the University of the Fraser Valley as part of their Teacher Education Program.  The course, Changing Schools From the Inside Out will explore spaces where change is possible despite restraints within the education system.

A few of the practices I use in my high school classroom will be embedded into the course: journalling, movement, meditation, and laughter.

The three hour class each day will be divided into time to share within the circle, time to listen to a lecture, and time to practice and/or explore new ideas.  Gather, Think and Do, respectively.

I am very excited about this opportunity to teach and to learn with other teachers and am looking forward to showing what I’ve learned through “chart and chance” over my career.  As Ken Robinson has said:

Opportunities for change exist within every school, even where the emphasis on high-stakes testing has become extreme. Schools often do things simply because they’ve always done them. The culture of any given school includes habits and systems that the people in it act out every day. Many of these habits are voluntary rather than mandated – teaching by age groups, for example, or making every period the same length, using bells to signal the beginning and end of periods, having all of the students facing the same direction with the teacher in the front of the room, teaching math only in math class and history in history class, and so on. Many schools, a good number of which are dealing with adverse conditions and were once considered trouble, have used that space to innovate within the system, often with inspiring results. Innovation is possible because of the sort of system that education actually is. ~~~ Ken Robinson in Creative Schools.


Essential Time for Education


Dear Minister of Education Peter  Fassbender,

Now that Bill 11 has become law and you have the power to determine what I do for my professional development, I wonder if you could spare a few moments to help me with some concerns I have?

What do I do if an Individual Education Plan (IEP) calls for a student to have a scribe but there are no Education Assistants assigned to that student? What should I do? Do I leave the other 29 students to their own devices while I write the student’s responses to an assignment?

When I have fifteen of thirty students in a class with IEPs that all call for different adaptations, which of those IEPs should I attend to first during each 70 minute period with the students?

Do you have any suggestions about what I should have the students without IEPs do while I set up the students with IEPs when I do not have an Education Assistant in the classroom?

And what do I do when I am lucky enough to have one Education Assistant in a class where there is a student who is autistic, a student with dysgraphia, a student with hearing difficulties, a student with severe behaviour issues and a student with ADHD who needs to constantly pace? To whom should the Education Assistant and I address our attention?

There are so many more situations I need advice on. I hope you have some suggestions.

Does your plan for my professional development include having time to analyze my lessons and discuss my observations with colleagues like teachers in Finland and Japan do?  I have noticed so many things about the way my teen students learn. I would love to have time to do more research and to find ways to adapt my teaching practice to accommodate what my students need.

I must confess that I envy teachers in Finland who are allowed to spend 40% of their time at work in analyzing lessons! I have so many questions about what happens in my classroom that I’d  love to have the time to discuss with colleagues.

As it is, the situation now is that I can snatch a few minutes with a colleague while we wait for our photocopying to finish. Sometimes we are lucky and get a few minutes during lunch if we don’t have students to meet with or department meetings to attend. We have become experts at eating while multitasking!

Having only five Pro-D days a year means that by the time the Pro-D day arrives, there’s so much more that needs to be discussed and so on those days we can only chip away at the mountain of curiosities we have about teaching and learning. Imagine having interesting things happen each hour over 180 days and then having just 5 days to discuss all that has happened.

As you know, back in the 1980s teachers gave up vacation time in order to have Pro-D days so I know that adding more Pro-D days by extending the school year will definitely not be popular! It seems to me that a much more effective approach would be for professional development to be built into each instructional day as is done elsewhere. That way there is a timely addressing of the issues, wouldn’t you agree? Children can change so much over a short period of time through their development. But, being that you’re a grandfather, I’m sure you know this.

As a mother, there’s lots that I learned about child development while my daughter was growing up. Her questions often flummoxed me! Young children can be so smart, can’t they?

Through all my undergraduate and graduate studies it was wonderful to be able put my experiences as a mother into the context of research in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy. Nowadays I draw from my 6 years of university studies in education to make decisions about what the best approach would be to increase the chances of my students being successful. But sometimes not even my Master’s degree  is enough to deal with some of the challenges and that’s when I wish I had time to discuss possible responses with my colleagues.

When I do happen to carve out enough time to talk to a colleague, I’m always amazed how a different perspective can help me to see more clearly what is happening in my classroom. It’s as though my colleague has cleaned up my glasses so that I can see through them more clearly!

By the way, I don’t mean to be rude, but  what education qualifications will you be drawing upon when you make determinations about what I should learn in order to develop professionally? Just curious…

I really hope that when you determine what I should do for my professional development that you consider that what teachers need most are enough Education Assistants for every student with an IEP and time with colleagues to discuss ways to help our students to be successful learners in the 21st century.


A. Teacher