What’s Your Vibe?

Posted: 26th November 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Have you ever walked into a school and immediately felt a particular vibe or energy? Or maybe it wasn’t so immediate (front foyers and offices as your first stops in a school can be a little off-putting), but maybe after spending a day you walked out of that school thinking: “what a great place to learn” or “I would never let my child go there”.

I think I was oblivious to this personal tone of a school as a classroom teacher, but when I worked in system roles and spent time in many different schools I started to sense it.  That led me to wonder what it is that contributes to the tone of a school? What is it that makes someone comfortable or uncomfortable?  It seems to me that the more comfortable people are there the more likely they are to learn. (I have absolutely no research to back this up but it makes sense, doesn’t it?)

As a school leader, I have thought a lot about what tone I want to see in the school I am in and how I can influence it.  In various ways, this has been a key piece of my professional learning in the last few years.  And while I have not figured out all the ingredients to creating a positive tone in a school, I think I’ve found a few key ones.

It’s OUR school, not my school.

You can’t have one lone fish in a school of fish and you can’t have a single contributor in a school of students. It takes many contributors, many voices, many influences to make a school. The richer the tapestry, the better it is for everyone. A good school leader finds ways to weave all those voices together so everyone plays an important part.


It is one thing to say you respect other voices, opinions and ideas, but it is quite another to show it. You show it in how you listen, react and synthesize decisions.


A smile goes a long way. So does a sincere thank you or an unexpected helping hand. Learning how to shut down negativity without completely ticking off your Negative Nelly is an art form that every leader should master.  We’re in a building with a whole gaggle of kids who are learning. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find something to be positive about.


You have to learn how to simultaneously focus on the big picture and see a school and all its worth presently and in the future, while also also taking time to reflect on those tiny little pieces of celebration that you would miss if you only looked too far off into the horizon.  And a good leader figures out how to share both.

There are probably so many other things that contribute to that nebulous vibe you feel in a school.  How do you make your school a place people want to learn in?


November Thanks

Posted: 5th November 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

What is it that they say about November?  Ah yes…

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
Thomas Hood

It’s a tough month for a teacher.  The shine of the new school year has worn off.  If you are a primary teacher, the looming doom of a class full of snowsuits makes you shudder.  Assessments heat up, bad blood between certain students flares up, and recess duty gets a little chilly.  There are reports, interviews and meetings galore.

Today, I was tweeting about a funny comment my daughter said about her homework, and it resulted in this: tweet_pic


And that got me thinking.  A little thank you often goes a long way.  It is a simple thing to say but probably not said – meaningfully – enough.  I’m going to try to be very conscious during this dreary month to bring a little much-needed cheer to educators I know.  I’m going to try to consider at least one educator each day this month who I can thank for their contribution to the lives of students.  Some of my thanks will be about the educators I work with every day; I am so lucky to work with such an incredible team.  Others will be personal about the people who educate my own kids because thankful parents can make such a difference to hard-working educators.

Is there anyone else thankful for certain educators?  Do you know anyone who has made a difference for students?  Join me in #thankateacher this month and we’ll show Thomas Hood we can bring a little cheerfulness into November.

Taking a Leap

Posted: 28th October 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

It is possible that I might be considered a wee bit stubborn by some people.  Except those who really know me well would probably say it is more than a “wee bit”.

“I’m not tired.”

“I can do it myself.”

“There is no way THAT is going to happen.”

“You can’t stop me from doing…”.

Those phrases all sound like something a feisty two year old might say, or an eye rolling teenager, or possibly me (as a two year old, a teenager, and a middle aged mom).

A few nights ago, I was lucky enough to attend an “Ignite” speakers in education session hosted in Toronto by Discovery Education and Dean Shareski .  There were some great speakers who gave me lots of interesting ideas to think about and talk through with my car buddies.  Royan Lee did his 5 minute wonderings talk on facing a fear and why he had to set an example for his own kids if he expected them to be resilient risk takers.  Royan is a talented speaker and it was an entertaining talk to listen to.

I did not expect that out of all the thought-provoking talks offered that night (no offense meant, Royan!), that this is the one that was going to keep me up at night thinking.  But it did, and I’ve learned that I need to puzzle out the things that keep me up at night if I’m going to be a self reflective learner.

So, here’s what I figured out.  Maybe it is because I’m stubborn.  Maybe it is because I’m afraid.  Probably because it is a little (or a lot) of both, but I have been putting off taking a leap in a new direction and trying something new.  I have had many excuses to barricade me against the possibility, despite feedback and encouragement to give it a try.

Royan reminded me that my actions and decisions aren’t just about me (perhaps I need to add self centred to my list of toddler/teenager/middle aged qualities).  I need to face my own fears and set aside my stubbornness if I am going to ask any student, teacher, or child of mine to take a leap and try something new.  It makes me uncomfortable, but I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?  Learning sometimes is uncomfortable. The funny thing is, I love learning new things and am very motivated as a learner…if I am comfortable and interested in the learning.  It reminded me that there are many times when learners can follow their interests and motivations to learn, but there are also those times in school or in life when you just have to learn something because it is good for you.  The school I am in has focused very heavily in the last few years on incorporating learner voice and choice and I still stand by the fact that this is a really valuable way to learn, but not everything we do will have that immediate engagement reward.

So, I will be trying to resist crossing my arms and stomping my feet and saying “you can’t make me” while I take a leap of my own.  I’m sure it will be good for me in many ways, but maybe most importantly it will give me more experience as a stubborn, uncomfortable learner so I can share my own struggles with other stubborn, uncomfortable learners.

I have a feeling that I might run into a few during my career.  Don’t you?

Thanks Royan, from one stubborn, uncomfortable learner to another.





Ten Years Later, What Makes You Cringe?

Posted: 17th October 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

With a busy, collegial school staff of about 85, the main office is always abuzz with interesting conversations.  This past week, I overheard two separate interactions that had me thinking.  In both cases, staff members were laughing about different things they had done years ago in a classroom that they are embarrassed to now admit.  Each time, the other staff member kindly agreed with their colleague and admitted to similar “faults”.  Interestingly, none of the things they mentioned would have been considered faults ten years ago, at least in our district.

It got me thinking about all of the things I did as a teacher that I wouldn’t do now.  Perhaps I should be embarrassed that it is a long list, but instead I’m proud of it.  Doesn’t it mean that I have spent the last ten years learning, growing, and changing my practices?  I sure hope so.

What worries me is not those educators laughingly admitting their past practices, but those who don’t see anything wrong with their practice ten years ago.  Or five years ago.  Heck, I even worry about those who haven’t changed anything since last year.

There are three big reasons why I think we should always be evolving in our practice:

  • we have to be models of life long learning for our students (and if we are learning, we will be changing)
  • there is so much educational research and the sharing of good and better practices, we are not giving the importance of our professional responsibility it’s due unless we change
  • if our students aren’t changing us, we probably aren’t paying enough attention to them

Those first two points are ones that I’ve spoken about before and I know others who have shared even better thoughts on the topics, but it is that third one I would ask you to consider.

I was listening to a dance teacher recently talk about how much she has been changed by having to listen to the needs of her most challenging dance student and to find innovative ways to make the student’s learning better.  She freely admitted how much better a teacher she is because of how her student had unwittingly pushed her to be better.

I don’t know about the students in your class or school, but I think we probably all see our share of challenging students.  I would argue that with students having such a wide variety of needs, interests, skills and resources, they should all be challenging at some point.  If I am listening to their needs, I am having to find new ways to teach them all the time.  And if that is the case, I am constantly refining my practice and becoming a better educator.

People will find ways to justify how they are learning (but haven’t changed their practice) and how they have read the research (but haven’t changed their practice).  If we consider our students as agents of change in our practice, that’s a lot harder to justify.  I am listening to my students and their needs and I am still not changing?  That, I think, is unforgivable.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, but our students really are both our best teachers and our biggest reason to change.  We just need to listen, then change for the better.  Hopefully, in ten years or five years or next year, we will all have a chuckle about the way we are teaching now.


What Have We Done?

Posted: 13th October 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I am a big people-watcher (I think a lot of educators are…I wonder why that is?).  It doesn’t matter if it is my colourful family at Thanksgiving dinner, on a layover at an airport, or in any one of the many schools I’ve worked in, I really love to sit back and observe people.  I never get tired of it.

I have to wonder, though, about some of the things I have observed in the last several years, particularly in schools.  There have been great things to celebrate and enjoy, but there have also been some recurring observations of students that really make me think.

Some things I’ve seen, in multiple schools, multiple times:

  • Students who feel adults (parents, teachers) must solve all of their problems.  Immediately.
  • Students who make their (forgotten) responsibilities someone else’s problem.
  • Students who feel grades are the most important thing about school.
  • Students who label any disagreement with any other person as “bullying”.
  • Students who are afraid to take some risks that could help them learn, develop a skill or make new friends because of what someone else will think.
  • Students who think it is their right to be chosen for every team and group, even if they are based on merit and they don’t quite have it.
  • Students who don’t believe they deserve to lose.  Ever.  At anything. (Alternately, students who strongly believe that if they did lose, the other person/team must have cheated).

Has anyone else seen these things in students, or is it just me?

Those are just my observations, but they make me wonder what to do.  You may have noticed that I didn’t title this post “What’s the Matter with Kids These Days?”  I don’t think any of the things I’ve observed are inherent in children from birth; somehow these qualities have been nurtured in them along the way.  I’m not interested in laying blame – I’m sure it is a mix of responsibility of parents, educators, institutions (universities are still usually telling us the importance of grades), society and the media.  I know I can’t hope to change the ways of most of those people/organizations, but I can think about what I want to see in students and what I can do to support them:

  • I want to teach students how to become problem solvers,  even though it is takes longer than just fixing it for them.
  • I want to hold students responsible for their actions (or lack thereof) and words, even though they won’t always be happy about it and they may suffer in the short term.  Any adult can tell you that you can’t escape responsibility forever.
  • I want to ensure students and everyone else understand that school has so many good things to offer besides grades.  Helping students to find another prize to keep their eye on is a big goal.
  • I want students to understand that bullying is real and serious, but not everything that happens is bullying.  I need to help them understand the difference and give them other language to label what happens.
  • I want to show them how taking risks can result in good stuff, and I want to celebrate students who jump out and take those risks, whether or not they succeed.
  • I want them to know that even though failure can hurt, it happens to all of us.  And we survive.  Learning how to get over it makes us stronger.

We may have taught this generation of students some bad habits, but I have hope that we can provide some new lessons.  I completely believe that they are a group that can change the world in so many positive ways.  We owe it to them to give them some tough lessons now so that they can grow up smarter, stronger, and more resilient.

We Need Wonderful

Posted: 6th October 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Have you ever thought about how we use the word wonderful?
There’s the nicey-nice way: “You have all been such a wonderful audience.”
There’s the sarcastic way: “Fridays are wonderful when you are short 3 teachers and 2 EAs, aren’t they?”
Then there is the one-word-when-nothing-else-can-be-said way: “Ms. Smith, here is the new student you weren’t expecting and don’t have a desk for. …. Wonderful!”
I’m no linguistics specialist, but shouldn’t it mean “full of wonder”? We need a word in education to help us describe the state of wonder we should be aspiring to. By that I mean an environment that encourages us to think outside of the box; to consider new ideas in new ways. It means an environment that welcomes learners to say “I wonder…” no matter how wild the idea and supports them to follow their ideas where ever they lead. Let’s call that wonderful, shall we?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say we need more wonderful in our schools. We need more wonderful educators, more wonderful students, and more wonderful learning opportunities. (Please don’t take that sentence out of context – I think we have lots of nicey-nice wonderful in our schools already).
Wonderful means learners, young and old, working in an environment that encourages questioning, dreaming, problem solving, debating, collaborating, thinking critically and creatively.
Without wonderful, we have cookie cutter art projects, fill in the blank assignments that always only have one right answer, closed questions, and regurgitation of information. Without wonderful, we have cookie cutter PD for educators.
With wonderful, we have exciting new ideas, engaged empowered learners and an environment to dream, create and learn in.
I aspire to be more wonderful every day. I aspire to help create an environment for all learners that encourages wonder.
If we want to create life-long learners, we need to give them something worthy of spending their life doing.
Are you wonderful? Are you creating the conditions to allow learners around you to be wonderful?

But I Don’t Wanna

Posted: 21st September 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I was talking to a colleague today about some of the students we tend to categorize as demonstrating non-compliant and defiant behaviour.  It got me thinking about when someone might call me one of those labels.

When I think about the different roles I assume:  educator, parent, learner, administrator, child, wife, writer…

There are lots of times that I have thought – “I don’t wanna.”

It’s not the roles themselves that make me  cross my arms and stomp my feet (figuratively, usually).  It is that the work I need to do is:

  • too hard
  • too time consuming
  • too boring
  • too embarrassing
  • too far out of my comfort zone
  • too tedious

When students tell us they don’t wanna, how do we react?  If our knee jerk response is just “Well, you have to”, we build a power struggle and we heighten discomfort.  If we say “Why not?”, we ask students to defend themselves (which is also hard, embarrassing, time consuming…).

So, what should the response be to “I don’t wanna”?

I think I try to say something along the lines of “Sometimes I don’t wanna either.  Want to talk about it?”  but I’m not sure that’s the best strategy either.

What do you say when a student says or implies “I don’t wanna”?


I Think I Found My New Box of Hugs

Posted: 8th September 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Last week I wrote about my experience using a tangible anchor to capture an experience.  I was looking for something beyond the checklists and administrivia of a school start up to anchor the school year. How do I remember the first day of a new school year aside from bus duty, class lists and recess procedures?

Well, today was the first day. It was a long, exhausting day but a very good one.  There was still plenty of administrative checklists and duties to attend to, of course, but I wanted more.  I wanted to focus on making the day memorable, for me, and for students, staff and families who shared the exciting day with me. I set out to find my box of hugs amongst the checklists.

I thought about messages I had heard recently from a former HWDSB student (@labikaghani) and our new Director (@mannyhwdsb), as well as a repeated message from a speaker I have heard several times (@shareski).  All have stressed the importance of sharing stories if you want to develop trusting relationships with staff, students and families and how important that is to good learning.  That’s what I wanted: not just first day survival, but a foundation for great learning.

So I set out to find those stories in the midst of the busy day. I learned about student summer trips to Korea and the difference between beaches there and beaches in Central and South America.  I learned how many students looked forward to coming back to school and what they were most looking forward to getting back to now that they were here (but it did add to my checklist that I needed to ensure the basketball nets needed to be rehung right away).  I learned about parents who were anxious and others who headed away from the school for a little first day back celebration (and who experienced a little of both).  I learned some new things staff members tried out over the summer and what they were pumped about trying soon with their class.  Seeing the people and the stories behind the checklists is what made the day a great one.

I will remember those stories long after I have forgotten the stress of helping to organize buses. (At least, I hope that is the case. Buses haunt me.)  Checklists and procedures might keep a school running smoothly, but it is people that give a school life.

I think it is going to be a year full of stories and learning. That’s something to look forward to.

A September Box of Hugs

Posted: 1st September 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

There once was a child who was extremely energetic, considerably defiant, and who wore out my patience, energy and grasp on sanity.  Day after day this kid tired me out physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Everything I thought I knew about child behaviour and how I could (hopefully positively) influence and manage it was thrown out the window with this child.  Working with this child was a humbling experience.

What was most humbling was that this was not one of my 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. children.  This was one of my homegrown ones.  This one had my last name, my DNA, lived in my house and was my responsibility.

I tell you this not to rat out one of my kids.  Thankfully, this child has since outgrown this phase of development and is now a sweet, responsible, talented young person.  We both survived that childhood and have the scars to prove it, but we have a great relationship.

Instead, I tell you this to preface an experience during this exhausting, humbling time to help explain the impact it has had on me.

One day, this 6 year old terror (oh yes, our terrible twos lasted several years), brought me a present.  I have to admit, I have always loved the innocent presents you get from children:  the hand drawn pictures, the fistful of raggedy dandelions, or the treasured rock they found.  I love them all.  But the present my little terror brought me is one that I will never forget.  The two of us had had a particularly difficult day together.  Why, oh why must you stand on top of the refrigerator?  No, the laundry basket is NOT for riding down the stairs and smashing into the kitchen cabinets.  Why is the cat covered in mud?  The terror was sent to a bedroom to give us both a little space.  Thankfully, it was quiet in there and while that often meant discovering some new disaster later on, I didn’t care; I needed that quiet.

But it wasn’t too long before my terror came out looking for me, a box in hand.  The box was offered to me silently.

“What’s this?” I asked, skeptically.

“I made you a present,” came the answer.

I opened it up to find a ream of jaggedly cut papers, each with a circle drawn on it.  “I love it,” I said carefully. (If you ever receive one of those mysterious gifts that you don’t quite know what to do with, keep the response vague and hope that the giver responds with some clues.)  “You made so many circles!  Thank you.”

“Those aren’t circles,” huffed my terror.  “They’re hugs.  I made lots of hugs for you.  So when I’m naughty you can have a hug from me.  I want you to have all of my hugs.”  Then the terror turned and walked away.

Oh my goodness.   A box full of hugs was the perfect, tangible gift from this child.  I needed those little simple things to hold onto to remember why we were going to keep doing this, day in and day out, and to want to keep doing it.  I still have that box, and this child is still the one who will leave me little love notes (without the trips down the stairs in the laundry basket).

I always think about my little box of hugs during this busy time of school year start up.  Back to school is an exciting time with new clothes and backpacks and the promise of a fresh start in a shiny new classroom.  But, as routines change, kids have bedtimes again, parents/students/teachers are anxious about school schedules/friends/hard classes/frenemies.  Tempers flair, tears can happen, patience wears thin, and we have the dreaded back-to-school nightmares.

Right about now, I think we all need a tangible reminder to hold onto during the stress of school start up to remind us about how it can be – and should be – a celebration, despite the worries that occur.  As a classroom teacher, my reminder was a carefully chosen favourite read alouds that I couldn’t wait to share with my class that first Friday.  I would keep it on my desk that first week, reminding myself that through all of the trials and tribulations of the exhausting first week, by Friday we could sit down together and celebrate the start of our new adventure together with a memorable shared experience.  As a parent, it was my little box of hugs that sometimes got me through.

I will admit, my first few “first days” as an administrator were a bit of a blur of checklists and problems and fixes and so many people having so many questions.  But my goal this year is to find something tangible to hold onto to remind me about what makes it all worth it; to find that little corner of celebration to remind me about why we do this.  I’m still trying to figure out what my new box of hugs will be, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

It’s time to start the adventure again.  Let’s make it a good one.

Not Just a Bookshelf

Posted: 31st July 2015 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Esai bookshelf

I went into my son’s room today to retrieve some long-lost item, and found myself hit by a wave of nostalgia.  Esai is in the process of moving out and into a house with 9 (9?!?  Don’t say it, I know) other second year students. I’m entitled to a bit of momma sadness, aren’t I?

Anyway.  I was looking at the bookshelf that takes up an entire wall of his room.  It is in a state of disrepair at the moment, as he sorts what needs to go with him and what he can leave behind.  But, even in its messiness, it struck me that there was a lot of diversity of artifacts to be found on its shelves.

There are books, of course.  Everything from Tolkien and Kogawa to Chris Hadfield, guides on the Anatomy of the Brain and Guinness Books of World Records.  There is no shortage of books in our home, and I am proud of Esai’s range in interests, genres and knowledge.

But beside the books are other bits and pieces of his 18 years of life.  His baseball trophies sit alongside of his work ties.  He was a mediocre baseball player at best, which was heartbreaking for his baseball-loving coaches of a dad and a grandfather, but something I was secretly glad of.  Esai is one of those kids who found ways to be successful at almost everything.  Baseball and visual art are the two things he struggled with growing up, and I am glad he had those challenges.  The work ties make me smile; I love the irony in the fact that this teenager has to wear a tie to work every day (as a manager at a fast food restaurant) while my husband avoids them like the plague.  Irony aside, I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to go out and work, and learn how unpleasant it can be sometimes, requiring perseverance, and how proud you can be of a job well done, requiring celebration.

Then there are the other reminders of his life.  His Robotics trophies sit beside his Royal Conservatory of Music exam results and on top of a picture from his 3rd birthday.  The picture is a reminder of when he got his beloved kitchen set, so he could be a famous chef, just like Emeril Legasse.  I remember his daily (hourly, sometimes) cooking shows he would put on for us in our living room.  At the time, he wanted to be two things when he grew up:  a tv chef and a midwife (he was strangely addicted to a reality tv show A Baby Story).

I read an article recently about the perils of early specialization in sport by John O’Sullivan.  You can read it here

In brief, he uses a variety of sources to explain why our recent trend in North America to train up children in a single sport from a very young age can be detrimental to the intended outcome:  making him or her the best in the sport.  I smiled when I got to the part that mentioned the only exceptions he could find were training in figure skating and gymnastics, two sports I am quite intimately aware of, and know all too well the dangers and pressures of early specialization in them, but also the sad necessity for that.

It got me thinking beyond sports, though.  I wondered if we – parents and educators – were doing too much to create specializations for our children in school.  I wondered what factors contributed to this.  Does giving numerical grades for subjects before middle school force children (and parents and teachers) into thinking they are “good” at one kind of learning while not so great at something else?  Does cutting secondary school down to four years (from the previous possible five in Ontario) force students to abandon learning opportunities that would broaden their scope of experience rather than focus it down into only exactly what they will need for post-graduation?  Do we treat some students differently because we don’t believe they will ever cut it as a …. fill in the blank here with your choice of labels – mathematician, athlete, writer, musician, reader, explorer.

My son is not likely to be a famous chef.  Or a midwife.  Or a baseball player.  Or a professional musician.  Or a lifetime burger flipper. Or a Guinness World Record Holder.  But if he hadn’t tried out all of those skills along the way, I don’t know if he would be the kid I’m proud of today.

Some of the structures perpetuating this specialist thinking are bigger than any one of us.  Although I am skeptical about giving of grades to 6 year olds, I can’t change that.  But I think there are things that we can reflect on and change individually to better the lives of the children we support.  How do we, educators, ensure that our students have a wide range of experiences on their bookshelves?  How do we build that diversity into our learning opportunities and the willingness to try them into our young charges?  How do we, as parents, convince ourselves and other parents to let go of the parent guilt-traps that drive us to want to have an NHL draft pick candidate by age 10?  How do we, parents,  encourage our kids to experience things they aren’t great at, and then sit back and let them struggle through it?

Growing up isn’t easy, and it doesn’t fit into nice little boxes.  It should be messy and unpredictable.  Sometimes it will be frustrating and sometimes cause pride and elation.  All, of course, with the goal of preparing us for adulthood, which is just as messy and unpredictable.  Sometimes a bookshelf isn’t just a bookshelf; it is a jumbled collection of life.  And what is better than that?