And Now for Something Completely Different Part 2

Eight years ago I wrote this. Starting today, I’ll be on to something different as my time with Discovery Education comes to a close.

I recall eight years ago people questioning if I should leave a great job in a school district to give up a pension to work for a for-profit company that is certainly much less secure. I don’t regret it for a minute. It has been eight years full of joy and learning and so much more.

My duties were many and varied. I hated being asked “what do you do” as it didn’t fit in any box. When I said I helped build community, it usually required lengthy follow-up and context. The easiest thing to explain to people was that I did a lot of speaking. My rough estimates would suggest I presented at over 120 conferences and events to well over 50,000 people. But beyond that, I spent time in districts and classrooms supporting them in their daily work. I helped create content and even helped with sales. All these experiences have helped me understand the complexities and challenges of running a business as well as running a school district. I spent time with work everyone from classroom teachers to Superintendents. My work took me all across Canada, the US and even the UK.

But the best part of my job was the connections I made and learning from world-class educators. Typically my work took had me working with the most innovative and passionate leaders and teachers. I started naming all the people my work has connected me with and I got to over 100 before I realized that was a futile exercise. I can name teachers, principals, district support people and Superintendents from across the continent that I’ve not only learned from but have developed friendships with. There’s hardly a city I would travel to where I couldn’t send a quick message and have an engaging dinner date with a dear friend. While many may trash and criticize our education system my bias has me advocating for educators who are doing amazing work despite some of the systematic challenges we face.

Finally, I had the great privilege of working with some of the finest human beings on the planet. Unlike my days in a school district, the relationships I built here were much more like family. When you spend so many days and evenings and time outside of work, you can’t help but get close to people. Obviously this could be a challenge if you don’t like each other but I can honestly say that everyone I worked with for any length of time was simply awesome. These people were my teachers and friends and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

While this chapter of my life closes, I’m looking at a new one and am excited about exploring a few different options. But as I look back at my time with Discovery Education I think about the words of a famous student.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Ferris Bueller

I never took my job for granted and savoured the moments. It was a great privilege to do important and lasting work. Thank you for all of you that made these last eight years the best of my professional career.

The One Thing Teachers Want That No One is Talking About

Ask any teacher what is one thing they wish they had that would make their job better. For most the answer is time. 

The solutions to this problem are complex and in many cases outside the purview of educators but there is one increasingly growing aspect that no one seems to be talking much about. Time spent looking for stuff. 

“Stuff” is more or less content. While many jurisdictions are understanding that content may not be as important as developing skills, content is still important and necessary for learning even if your focus is on skills. 

The most progressive curriculum I know is in British Columbia. Teachers are free to focus on big ideas and core competencies and student agency is the goal. Yet as excited as educators are to embrace this, many I’ve worked with and spoken to are struggling to find content. The curriculum is less concerned with content and yet without something to build upon, analyze, create with, the efforts to develop skills and competencies fail.

School Has a Content Problem. It doesn’t seem to want any. ….But try as we might to think of reading or mathing as a skill, we cannot divorce any of it from specific content in the classroom. These aren’t Subjects that can be studied or mastered in any manner divorced from content, which is infinite in possibility and purpose and audience. ‘Content’ and ‘Skill’ are not equal partners, because skill is universal while content is specific. You cannot learn a skill without the content, but the content requires the skill no matter what it is.

In other jurisdictions where standards are more focused on content, teachers are dissatisfied with textbooks and formulaic approaches. Their print-based world often seems outdated and lacking engagement. They know there is better stuff out there. 

So in both cases, teachers turn to “the google”. I’ve witnessed this first hand as my wife worked endless hours at night exploring possibilitites for her grade 2 classroom. I tried to do my own research to see if this was indeed widespread so I reached out to Twitter and asked a simple question:

While not scientific, my hunch is the results are fairly accurate. I believe this is something new. I recall as a young teacher prior to the Internet that I spend very little time culling for resources. I might spend time at the beginning of a unit at the local library but I exhausted my search relatively fast. The other resource I had was a teacher librarian who would also alleviate some of this work. The majority of my time at home was spent planning what my students would do with the content.  I’d say on average I spent 25% of my time finding and culling content and 75% of my time on what the instruction would be. Today I’d say for most teachers that’s reversed. Today’s educator is both blessed and cursed with infinite access to content. While there are many ways to find content and tips to better curate, it still takes time. A lot of time.  I also think much of this time is wasted.  Like going into a giant mall when all you need is a basic pair of socks, what should be a 5-minute job suddenly becomes hours. Yes, there are times when that’s part of the experience but doing this on a daily basis is costing many hours. Most of us can already admit to wasting more time online that we’d like, we don’t need to be adding to the problem. It seems that teachers and administrators are okay with this or maybe they just haven’t thought about it very much. I have. 

I don’t often mention on my blog that I work for Discovery Education. Over the past 7 years, I’ve been grateful to work with so many forward-thinking districts, leaders and teachers. While we offer a whole lot more, we are best known for our content. When I first began, our team would often highlight the fact that we offered 300,000+ resources from video, text, images, audio, interactives and more. We don’t talk about that much anymore. Instead, we might say that our services offer a handful of multi-modal, quality and vetted resources for nearly every grade, subject and standard. Teachers don’t want/need more stuff, they want/need good stuff and they want/need it easily accessible. When we do our job, we help teachers and leaders see how our products and services save time. We want to shift teachers time to allow them to focus on differentiating instruction, addressing the needs of individual students without having to spend a whole bunch of time finding just the right content. 

The reality is, the internet and youtube provide great content. The trouble is you have to find it. While there are many teachers who are willing to spend the time to find that content, it’s not fair to expect teachers to spend hours each night searching for stuff when they could be spending that time on instruction or better yet, resting. 

I don’t mean for this to sound like a pitch for Discovery but I’m simply surprised by how little anyone is paying attention to this growing problem. With growing stress among teachers, giving them the one thing they really need seems like something we all need to be paying more attention to.

To quote my friend Bill Ferriter, Is any of this making sense? Is this true for you? Do you see this as a problem Anyone you know addressing this? 

Community Stories

I’m often reminded that I have one of the best jobs in the world. Getting to work with districts around the world, I continue to value and appreciate the high quality of people who have dedicated themselves to helping young people. Being able to spend time with these people and hear their stories, encourage them and connect them to others represents a fairly large part of my work. Building and growing community in a variety of ways is pure joy.

Another of the great privileges I have as part of my work at Discovery Education is to pursue my passions. One of those passions is storytelling and videography. Much like my writing and speaking, I recognize I have some ability but also recognize how much I have to learn. Last year I shot and edited 8 videos from educators in Canada, the UK and the US. I had filmed another in April but for a variety of reasons, was not able to get it edited and produced until today.

Zulma Whiteford from Discovery Education on Vimeo.

I continue to be fascinated by stories and how they forge, create and strengthen connections and build community. I hope to share more of these and also experiment with the whole realm of storytelling. I’ll always be learning.

Joy and Love

This past week was Discovery Education‘s annual summer institute affectionately known as DENSI. 150 educators from all over the world spend 5 days together at what really can’t be described as a conference or professional development. It’s something different. The affection I feel for the people I just spent the last number of days with is hard to articulate. Just watching people learn and play and laugh is intoxicating. It’s particularly amazing to see folks from other countries cross-cultural barriers to simply connect as educators and humans.

The theme for this year’s event was joy. In education words like “joy” and “love” are often reluctantly used. We have historically left those ideas for other institutions to manage. Learning can happen without them but when you include them, the idea of “community” takes on a whole new meaning and learning goes to another level.

Yesterday for our final celebration event folks came dressed in whatever outfit/costume brought them joy. A group of community members decided to dress in colored pants and a Canadian t-shirt as a tribute to me. I was humbled and slightly embarrassed at this gesture. Sheila organized it all and represents the quality of people in our community.

I have been blessed to work with some of the most caring, loving, smart and funny people on the planet. Unknown to me, they too dressed as me. Each one representing one of my many odd quirks or expressions.

Part of me was really hoping they were just mocking me. Sometimes that’s easier to deal with than reality that they actually love me enough to make fun of me and with me.  My own family takes great pleasure in mocking me and I love it. While yesterday was a little bit about me, the truth is my team does this kind of thing for each other and our community all the time.

This is a special group. I keep thinking, imagine if everyone felt as loved and valued as I do in their school, classroom or place of work. Let me just quote one of our Egyptian attendees who said:

“Everyone around the world who looks for the meaning of joy, stop searching, come to Discovery Education.”

Update: My friend and former colleague Chad Lehman did a great job in creating this memory. I don’t know if this translates to those not in attendance or not a part of our community but I want to share it anyway because it makes me smile.

Yesterday, I Wasn’t My Best

First of all, I’m fully aware I have one of, if not the, best job in the world.  Most days I acknowledge this fact and work passionately to fulfill our goal to build and foster community. But occasionally, like all of us, I have a day or moment when I don’t give my best.

As part of Discovery Education’s Summer Institute, we host a unique event for principals. What a great group of enthusiastic leaders who are give up 3 days of their summer to further their learning. Yesterday I gave a presentation I had done once before called “No More Boring Presentations”. While I don’t think it was boring, I also don’t think it was very good. It certainly wasn’t my best. The first time I gave it, it was for a different audience. Instead of taking the time to rework the content for a different audience, I tried to adapt on the fly. I ended up with a disjointed session with hopefully a few takeaways but a largely unsatisfying experience. In short, I sucked.

People are too kind. This image was created during my session and I’m guessing many walked away with an idea or two that was useful. Still, this wasn’t my best.

As someone who presents a lot, I’m most often happy and pleased with my presentations. I always reflect and make tweaks but in this particular case, it required more than a few tweaks. As soon as the presentation was over, I asked a colleague who was sitting in on the session, to provide me with honest feedback. Generally, we’re not very good at finding and using critical friends to help us improve our craft. I asked him to share a few ideas of how to improve my session. He told me a number of things that could be better. He asked questions about what I was trying to accomplish, about how the ideas flowed and what my goals were. After our discussion, it was clear I needed to make some big changes. Without going into specifics here are a few things I need to change:

  • Make it more applicable to the specific audience.  Sometimes this is difficult in my job because I don’t always know the audience and in many cases, it is a very general group. In this case, they were all principals. I should have taken time to gear things to that specific group
  • Provide clear expectations. Duh. This is basic teaching. When I’m presenting on something I’ve done a few times, this becomes obvious and intuitive and isn’t always necessary to be made explicit.  If I do a good job, participants will be able to determine the outcomes. In this case, I needed to be explicit as much for me as the participants.

I’m not going to use the word failure here because it’s getting cliche. But I will say yesterday was a good reminder that acknowledging your missteps and reflecting on them is healthy. In addition, while individual reflection is essential, finding those who can provide feedback and new perspectives is invaluable.