Why I Became An Elementary School Principal?

Everyone’s journey to becoming a school Principal is different. We would like to think that our motivations are all similar, but that is not always the case. I did not start out as an educator thinking that I would become a Principal someday. I actually enjoyed teaching so very much that I could have remained in the classroom until I retire.

My path to the Principalship is unlike many of my colleagues as my system leadership experience did not come through the Board’s Programme Services Department, but rather through the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario – Thames Valley Teacher Local. So why did I want to become a Principal?

Let me begin by sharing some anecdotes from some of my students.

You are a good Principal…

Little did he know that I felt like a small fish in a big pond when I was asked to be the Acting Principal at Wilberforce PS. Kids can be so kind.

I want to stay with you…

This broke my heart as it made me realize that some of our students have some big lions in their lives and we provide them with that one constant where they feel safe and cared for.

Then I walk by a kindergarten class in the hallway and I am greeted with “good morning Mr. Prinstipal!” or someone else would call out “good morning Mrs. Millward!” and I am brought to laughter as I give them a high five as they pass by me on their way to gym. It is the best experience ever….

These are my students and they know that I care about them because I show them that I care.

This job is tough but rewarding in so many ways. Balancing the management demands of the building with improving student learning and achievement is not always an easy thing to do, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues and knowledgeable others who have and continue to help me grow in this role. This ongoing support and mentorship serves as a model for how I can support staff as they work with the students in their classroom.

A Principal in our Board, asked me why I wanted to be a Principal. I told him that…

I love the feeling I get when I see students across all divisions succeed in learning something new, like using the open number line or decomposing numbers for example, and how proud they feel about it.

I love the feeling I get when staff, my admin. partner and I are learning and “working  together, sharing knowledge, skills and experiences to improve student achievement and the well-being of both students and staff.”

I love the feeling I get when building school-community partnerships whether it be through Lucan Hockeyville or preparing for the School-Lucan Remembrance Day Memorial.

I love these feelings and that is why I want to be a Principal.

My diverse experiences have allowed me to develop skills that are beneficial in this role. This role requires a balance between those skills that are needed to collaboratively plan and implement the school’s improvement plan/s and those skills that will help one navigate complex situations with people…and I have had to deal with a few of these in my role as VP and in my role as Acting Principal.

I applied to be a Principal with the Thames Valley District School Board because the Board’s Mission, Vision, and Commitments align perfectly with my educational and leadership philosophy.

I believe..

  • that every student can learn and succeed;
  • in lifelong learning;
  • In excellence;
  • in equitable and inclusive education

I support positive learning environments that are bias free, barrier free, and free from discrimination. Having grown up in South Africa, I know the impact of discrimination. I lived it. I felt it. Yet my parents and teachers guided me and instilled in me the value of education which formed the basis of my character development. I want to share these values with my students because it has stood me in good stead.

We all want the best for our students and we want to give them a learning experience that they will always remember fondly and one that will form the basis of their choices later on in life. If we can achieve this goal, then we would have fulfilled our role as educators, I believe.


My Special Education Learning Journey with OPC SEA

I think of my journey as building a house. My journey started with me solidifying my philosophical foundation related to special education. Central to developing these core sets of beliefs was understanding the theoretical underpinnings of special education and the legalities that govern special education in Ontario. A strong structure or framework is essential for the effective delivery of special education programming for our students. Each truss and beam represents the kinds of supports that we must have in place for us to have a strong special education delivery system at a system level and at a school level.

With a solid foundation and a sturdy framework i.e system and school-wide special education supports, we then need to ensure that the occupants of the house are supported in the delivery of special education programmes. To this end, we must ensure that we have a system in place to provide teachers with the necessary professional learning, especially in the area of special education.

This house must be maintained as the materials may succumb to wear and tear. An audit of what we do and how we do it at both the system and school level  must be done on a regular basis to determine the effectiveness of the system in delivering special education programming and services.

The maintenance that I can conduct at the school level could include:

  • Including a special education component in our weekly memo to staff
  • Including a special education component at our monthly staff meetings
  • Creating professional learning opportunities for staff re:
    • IEP’s
    • Accommodations/Modifications
    • Programming for students on an IEP
    • Learning for All

This maintenance is an ongoing process both at a system level and at a school level and is essential to ensuring that our Special Education House remains strong.


How to Start Leading and Stop Firefighting

There are days that every administrator feels like they are being pulled in so many different directions. It may even feel like you are putting out one fire after another with no end in sight. It is in our nature to want to help and to solve every problem that is brought across our desk. Indeed we may even have delusions of grandeur thinking that we are just like super man or superwoman because we are able to solve everyone’s problems and do so much in such a short period of time. Take a moment to step back and reflect on whether you are merely firefighting or truly leading.

My leadership journey as it pertains to Special Education has gotten me to ask myself the following questions:

  1. How have I built the capacity of staff to provide the needed supports for their students with special needs?
  2. In what ways have I facilitated staff planning and learning together to further the success of their students with special needs?
  3. In what ways have I specifically supported best practices/ high quality instruction for students with special needs?
  4. How have I enabled co-planning, co-teaching and co-assessing that supports students with special needs?

These are crucial questions that must be foremost in our minds if we are to be an effective leader in special education.


Inspiring Action Through Your Leadership

This video by Simon Sinek got me thinking about the key concepts that he was espousing and how they apply to my leadership in Special Education.

Sinek is trying to convey to us is that we will be more successful if we know our WHY. Knowing our WHY is the driving force behind achieving long term buy-in from all stakeholders and achieving our goals.

His key concepts as gleaned from the video are as follows:
* People don’t buy what you do? People buy why you do it?
* What you do proves what you believe.
* If you talk about what you believe you will attract those that believe what you believe?
* It is those who start with why who have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.

What does all of this mean in terms of my leadership in Special Education? I truly believe that all students can learn given the right conditions and programming. This belief needs to become a passionate rallying cry that will invoke the appropriate action on the part of all learning facilitators(teachers). Students must know at all times that we as educators care about them. ALWAYS! We cannot anticipate that they are going to be successful academically if they don’t feel that we care enough about them as individuals. We also need to acknowledge that students learn differently and that it behooves us to provide learning experiences that allows them to use their best style of learning. Regardless of their learning style and their learning needs, students have a yearning to be challenged according to their needs and to understand the relevance of what they are learning. We have to oblige them as educators so that they are excited to come back the next day to learn. In order to create the conditions so that all students can learn we need to consider and agree to the ideal learning conditions for all learners, we need to empower teachers, and we need to change our language as it pertains to special education(Bea McGarvey, 2015).

I recently read an article by Mea McGarvey(2015) entitled Creating a New Vision: Three “Re-Thinking” Breakthrough – Her three breakthroughs for creating a new vision for education are as follows:
#1 – Start with the ideal learning environment – what is the ideal learning environment for all our students?
#2 – Empower Teachers – building the capacity of teachers should be an ongoing endeavour as the special education needs of our students are very diverse.
#3 – Change your language – what are we saying to our staff? Does our talk reveal our leadership bent for special education?


Special Education – 10 Tips for Administrators

Over the years we may have read or heard about cases involving special education that have been taken to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal(HRTO) or even to court. In reviewing these cases one has to reflect on how to avoid repeating similar situations. Below is a list of ten tips that I would suggest school administrators consider in order to help them avoid potential legal problems in the area of special education.

  1. Document all meetings and conversations.
  2. Follow-up with what was promised.
  3. Make sure that you can follow through with something before promising to do it.
  4. Be aware of your legal obligations – the Education Act and Regulations as they pertain to Special Education
  5. Don’t delay providing support services for a student – explore and document options that will benefit the student.
  6. We have an obligation under the Code to accommodate students with disabilities to the point of undue hardship, regardless of whether the students are receiving any medical treatment in the community or not.
  7. We have an obligation under the Education Act to provide appropriate special education placements, programs and services to exceptional students. Parental conduct or lack of parental authority cannot be used as a justification for not meeting an exceptional student’s needs.
  8. A parent’s “fierce advocacy” for his or her child does not prevent us from accommodating the child’s needs to the point of undue hardship.
  9. Always focus on the child’s individualized needs and best interests to determine an appropriate placement and supports for a child.
  10. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!


Exceptional Students

Students in Ontario can be identified as exceptional in 5 categories through  the IPRC process. The 5 categories of exceptionality recognized by the Ministry of Education are as follows:

  1. behaviour
  2. communication
  3. intellectual
  4. physical
  5. multiple

I have become particularly interested in the Communication – Autism exceptionality because the spectrum is so diverse and the needs are so different for each student. In my role as a Vice Principal, however, I need to think about what it is I need teachers to understand in order to help a student with this exceptionality meet with success. My tentative research of the literature uncovered the following recommendations:

  • Involve parents in the education of their child as they provide perspectives and information that will broaden educators understanding of the student.
  • Establish effective methods for home/school communication.
    Students with ASD often experience difficulty with change. Establishing consistent practices through collaborative planning may help alleviate some of the challenges experienced by the student. Plan for transitions.
  • Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction to plan for and respond to students with various needs.

Paula Kluth(2005) in an online article entitled Supporting Students With Autism: 10 Ideas for Inclusive Classrooms suggested the following:

  • Learn About the Learner From the Learner
  • Support Transitions
  • Give Fidget Supports
  • Help with Organizing
  • Assign Class Jobs
  • Provide Breaks
  • Focus on Interests
  • Rethink Writing
  • Give Choices
  • Include

Some of the essential classroom look-fors and supports for a student with this exceptionality that I will be looking for when doing my walkthroughs are as follows:

  • Is verbal information supported with visuals?
  • Is more intensive levels of assistance provided to the student?
  • Are their opportunities for peer support?
  • Are opportunities provided for the student to practice and rehearse?
  • Are longer activities chunked into smaller segments.
  • Is technology being used and how often?
  • Is task participation and completion flexible?
  • Are a variety of opportunities and ways provided for the student to demonstrate learning?
  • Are visual supports such as graphic organizers or highlighting of keywords provided for the student?
  • Are alternatives to writing tasks provided for the student?
  • Has a visual schedule of daily activities been developed?
  • Is a consistent work system followed?
  • The location and rationale for the student’s seating arrangement.

As a school leader, I will endeavour to better support students with this exceptionality by…

  • Ensuring that teachers and I have a working understanding of Autism and what that means for particular students
  • Ensuring that home/school communication is in place and is effective
  • Ensuring that there is collaboration between all significant parties when it comes to the design and implementation of the IEP
  • Ensuring an IEP incorporates ABA teaching methods
  • Having a plan to deal with behavioural challenges
  • Supporting teachers in preparing the classroom for students with ASD
  • Managing resources (human, material, environmental) effectively
  • Formulating goals and interventions for students with ASD based on data
  • Evaluating outcomes of interventions based on data


Core Beliefs Related to Special Education

The name Special Education, I would argue, has both a positive and a negative connotation and both carry with it a label of sorts. Every student has the right to an education that is differentiated to their unique learning style and ability. This differentiation makes their education special and their learning meaningful. Conversely, if not done correctly, the “specialness” of a student’s education can carry with it a stigma or an identification that the child’s parents may not necessarily
want associated with them.

Larry Leverret in an Edutopia article entitled Closing the Achievement Gap: “All Children Can Learn” states that while we all are familiar with Ron Edmonds(1982) original battle cry “All children can learn”, we also know that certain things must be in place for this to happen, like “varying instructional approaches to match the learning styles of students, differentiating instruction, providing access to high-quality preschool programs, consistently exposing students to high-quality instruction, generating support from families and communities, and consistently scaling up implementation of best-practice instructional strategies and approaches in all classrooms and in all content areas.” Socio-economic status, the colour of your skin, your ethnic background, medical diagnosis etc. should never be factors that determine the quality of what you learn or whether you can learn at all. Every child can learn something if planned and presented appropriately.

I demonstrate my belief that all students can learn by creating a climate of high expectations for all my students and for the staff that I work with. For students, there is an expectation to meet standards as articulated in the Ontario Curriculum and additionally in their IEP if a student possesses one. For teachers, there is an expectation to teach the curriculum in its fullness to their students and to consider any accommodations and modifications that some students may need in order to be successful. My philosophy of leadership in special education incorporates a growth mindset because at its core is the belief that students can always be encouraged to excel beyond their ability especially if the instructional programme is appropriately tailored to facilitate ongoing growth. Likewise teachers are not only encouraged to create and deliver a programme of instruction that meets the learning needs of their students, but one that can also suitably challenge them.

Many teachers definitely believe that all children can learn and have adopted a growth mindset regarding their learning. They demonstrate this belief by differentiating their instruction, exposing students to high quality instruction in addition to forging valuable relationships with the community.

I believe that fostering and maintaining a set of core beliefs about how students learn should be an ongoing endeavour. To this end, one should explore professional learning opportunities around the Ministry’s Learning for All document with staff.


Looking back…

The past year has been a period of rapid learning and growth. It has also been one of the best journeys that I have ever undertaken as a professional. Those first few months in the role was a whirlwind and it all seems fuzzy in my mind right now. However, those were key learning moments for me as I tentatively navigated each day not knowing what to expect next.

Reflecting back on the past year, I have come to realize that I could not have come this far without the help and guidance of other professionals, especially my Principal. The staff were patient as I learned the nuances of the Vice Principal role. Above all, the students were so accepting, welcoming, and so forthright. The following anecdotes from some students steadied my resolve and fortified me when I felt myself wavering.

You are a good Vice Principal…
Little did he know that I felt like a small fish in a big pond in November of last year. How nice is that?

I want to stay with you…
This broke my heart as it made me realize that some of our little ones have some big lions in their lives and we provide them with that one constant where they feel safe and cared for.

Mr Millward, I am hungry. Do you have anything for me to eat?
I did…in my lunch bag. I pack extra stuff in my bag for times like this.

Then I go into a grade 1 class and I am swamped by the little ones who want to show me what they are learning, or to have me come over and do some math with them. It is the best experience ever….

These are my students and they know that I care about them because I show them that I care.

This job is tough. You have to balance the management demands of the building with the main reason we are here – to improve student learning and achievement – the learning agenda. This is not always an easy thing to do but I have been so lucky the last year to learn first hand from my Principal how this should be done.

I asked myself many times, Why do I still want to do this job? I guess my answer would be greed.

I am greedy!

I am greedy for the feelings I get when I see a student succeed in learning something new and how proud they feel about it.

I am greedy for the feelings I get when I see a teacher try something that I have suggested and they come to you afterwards and thank you for your help.

I am greedy for the feelings I get when I see a school community pull together to create a positive, supportive, learning environment.

I love these feelings and that is why I am still on this journey.

However, despite these feelings, I still ask myself, “Can I do this job?”

This role requires a balance between those hard skills that are required to advance the Board’s learning agenda and those soft skills that will help one navigate complex situations with people.

I am an educator who believes
– that every student can learn and succeed;
– in lifelong learning;
– In excellence;
– in equitable and inclusive education

I support positive learning environments that are bias free, barrier free, and free from discrimination. Having grown up in South Africa, I know the impact of discrimination. I lived it. I felt it. Yet my parents and teachers guided me through that morass and instilled in me the value of education.

My journey continues…

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