Thoughts About Arts Education

Introduction

Looking To Enhance Your Leadership Skills? My Cat Has Advice For You

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Hello Leaders, 

I would like to introduce you to my cat, Rosalind. She is your typical fluffy tabby house cat who likes relaxing on the window still, chasing any one of her fifty-five million toys, and watching HBO. 

Rosalind and I meet during a pet adoption weekend sponsored by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2016. Although I was nervous about being a cat mama due to my inexperience with felines in general, all of my anxiety melted away when we were introduced. 

At the same time that I adopted Rosalind, I also became serious about exploring options for formal leadership in education. Although I had held many leadership positions informally throughout my career as both an educator and a performing artist, I was interested to see if formal educational leadership could be a possibility.

So, I dived into a three year journey. 

Enrolled in many different courses. Shadowed leaders in my organization. Engaged in specific activities. Observed situations beyond what I thought was even possible. 

Throughout all of these experiences, I have learned through a series of courageous conversations and reflective practices about my strengths, my triggers and my areas for growth as both a professional and a human being. 

Before I write my final report to complete my last qualifications course, here is a summary of some key leadership learnings from the three year journey presented as a comparison to my cat’s behaviour. 

Invest in Building Authentic Relationships 

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Relationships do not develop an instant. They are fostered and nurtured over a course of time. 

When I first adopted Rosalind, I was told that cats fit into two extremes: disappear artists or cuddler cuties. I wanted to see my cat, so I outfitted the most used area of my apartment with Rosalind friendly items and invested time in learning about cats in general.

I learned that Rosalind enjoys, at the end of a productive day of resting, a good play session with her LED light-up ball followed by a grooming session. She also gets annoyed when I’m off schedule and arriving home awakens her earlier than expected. 

The leadership lesson that was mirrored in my educational journey is the importance of building authentic, professional relationships. Leadership is about serving the needs of the group with purpose. I am fortunate to work on many diverse teams where we collaborate to build sense of belonging that allows us to focus on the needs of our community while pushing our own learning. 

To add a little Rosalind into your leadership practices, try to: 

  • find time to connect with your team to find similarities

  • get to know the different philosophies and communication styles of your team members, and the “why” behind their wants/needs/values

  • when you’re with your team, regardless if it’s a two minute check-in or a formal meeting, be present and responsive and avoid trival distractions

The best way to achieve all of this is through the work. Look at every project, meeting, and group collaboration as a opportunity to build your work relationship and get to know the “why” behind your colleagues’ behaviour. 

Be Clear In Actions and Language

Rosalind is very consistent with her language and behaviour. Whenever someone new enters our environment, she observes from underneath the coffee table. She gathers all information before she either “makes a move” and introduces herself to the person or decides that socializing is not “on the agenda” and moves into the other room. 

A roll over with paws stretched out is an invitation for play. One meow is a thank you for replenishing the water. She always jumps to the window sill via a specific section of the love seat. 

Clarity and consisitency is needed in leadership so teams can focus on the task at hand instead of wasting time deciphering inconsistent messages. Inconsistency opens the door for unnecessary negativity. The questioning in leadership should be focused on how the team is successfully going to achieve what they need to achieve. 

To add a little Rosalind into your leadership practices, try to be:

  • aware of your actions, reactions and communications and reflect/gather feedback on the impact of those behaviour on the productivity of your team

  • transparent with the “why” behind actions/decisions

  • consistent and follow through with everything that you say you will follow through with to build trust within your team

  • observe and base judgements on data, adopting a non-biased lens when gathering information (and recognize your own personal biases whenever possible if they are influencing decisions)

Pause and Take A Break When Necessary

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Rosalind is the queen of rest. She understands the importance of not only resting, but a consistent sleep schedule to keep her energy up for the day’s activities. 

In the Harvard Business Review’s “How to Plan Your Week to Keep Your Weekend Free,” Elizabeth Grace Sanders clearly states the importance of rest and recovery in the context of time management: 

Rest and recovery:We’re human beings — living organisms — not machines. Our bodies and minds and spirits were made to work in cycles of work, rest, and sleep. When you have a sustainable lifestyle, you can consistently be productive throughout the week, but it’s still important to have a day or two completely work-free. Not only does this give your mind and body a rest, but also it gives you the invaluable gift of perspective. The issues that seemed so overwhelming on Friday afternoon are typically much more manageable on Monday because you’re in a better frame of mind to handle them.

With burnout recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization, rest and recovery needs to be a priority for every human. For leaders, modelling rest and recovery, from technology use to “after hours” expectations, is important for encouraging an environment of wellness. 

To add a little more Rosalind into your practices, try to:

  • practice what you preach in terms of wellness, modelling behaviours and upholding policies that will increase wellness and decrease stress for your whole team

  • be proactive with timelimes and co-construct deadlines with your team to avoid last minute, stressful situations

  • model time management in your own activities and model appropriate boundaries for work-life balance

As Sanders mentions in the above article, recognize that, “[u]nexpected activities will always come up, and no matter how hard you try to estimate how long work will take, some of your estimates will inevitably be wrong.” As a leader, how you respond to those unexpected activities will set the tone for your team. It’s true that you can do your best to set the pace and be proactive with scheduling to make sure that everyone, including yourself, gets their necessary downtime. But, your true leadership skills will show when you need to respond to the unexpected. 

At the end of the day, after the years of leadership training and observing my cat’s behaviour, the key leadership lessons are echoed in my educational philosophy:

I believe that effective school leadership is rooted in transparency, clarity and collaboration. It is the practice of serving an ultimate goal that will encourage cross-department engagement. This leadership model empowers all stakeholders to take risks, engage in activities that will showcase their strengths, learn from others, and potentially even challenge their own thinking. Effective school leadership is dynamic and demonstrated in modelling growth mindsets, visibly working with teams to build shared understandings, and articulating why practices are beneficial for a greater purpose. Effective school leadership supports a culture of innovation and action, where team members use reflection as a tool for growth.

Leadership is about transparency, clarity and collaboration where all members of the team bring their strengths towards completing a project, addressing a need or solving a problem. 

The next time you’re reflecting on your leadership skills and effectiveness, think back to Rosalind and ask: 

  1. Have I fostered authentic, professional relationships that are supported by not only my personal values, but the values of my team and of my organization?

  2. Am I clear and consistent with my actions, so people can spend time excelling in their work and resisting unproductive behaviour?

  3. Am I modeling a philosophy of wellness with my proactivity, time management and interaction with colleagues, allowing my colleagues to thrive and showcase their strengths?

Leaders, I wish you a world of success as your navigate your own individual leadership adventures. 


The School Year Is Over...What's Next?

Congratulations! 

Happy summer vacation break to those of you who work in education!

Another school year is over and, if your school system is like mine in Ontario, the break is in full swing. In my experience working in education, the start of the break often brings polarizing thoughts of: 

What are we going to do next year let’s start planning. 

or

I don’t want to think about school until the end of the summer. 

Regardless of where you fall between these two polarizing thoughts, one thing is certain. Educators need to use the break time to rest and rejuvenate so they can reengage fully when the next term starts. 

Teaching is not a job, but a lifestyle. When you’re teaching, you’re “on” intellectually and emotionally for the majority of the day, responding to student needs, planning and assessing curriculum, collaborating with colleagues, and communicating with parents/guardians. Although you can focus on the classroom, in the world of digital learning platforms and educational solutions, the classroom extends from the traditional “class period” to other aspects of the day. 

Here are some of strategies to manage the end of the term workload, make the most of your break, and be proactive about burnout going into the next school term. 

  1. Organize. Don’t let last year’s mess be at the front of next year’s start-up. Invest the time to organize all paperwork and clean-up your digital files. Go through all of your resources and get rid of anything that isn’t relevant anymore. Scan paperwork and upload to digital drives with proper titles so you can search and access the files easily.

  2. Reflect. Spend the time reflecting on the highlights, successes and challenges of the year. Complete a start-stop-continue for next year and place that information in a place where you will see it when you start planning for your next term.

  3. Unplug. Once you have completed the first two tasks, completely unplug from school. Give yourself some time to engage in non-school related activities. Read. Connect with friends and family. Find your new favourite ice cream flavour. Take advantage of the summer weather. Learn a new hobby. Re-engage with old hobbies. Remember: an educator is one of the roles that you play in your life and that role is enhanced by all of the other roles that you play in your life.

  4. E-Mail Boundaries. Set yourself a summer e-mail schedule and stick to it. Communicate that boundary to the world through the e-mail automatic response feature. Stick to your boundaries.

  5. Schedule. If you must plan in the summer, make yourself a strict schedule so planning doesn’t take over your whole summer. Give yourself three or four days and mark them on the calendar as “planning days.” Prioritize. Don’t procrastinate and use those planning days as actual planning days. Remember: planning during the break might relieve some stress in the fall BUT you are doing these plans without meeting your classroom learners. Think big picture but be flexible and responsive to the urgent learning needs that arise when you first meet your students at the beginning of the new term.

  6. Pedagogy Forward Professional Development. Instead of picking five million books to read about educational pedagogy, pick one topic based on your own learning needs from what you experienced previous term in the classroom. Develop your own summer genius hour project. Engage in deep learning that you can apply when you’re back in the classroom at the beginning of next term. Actively seek out those connections and record them. Keep asking: how will this professional development inquiry push your pedagogy forward and impact the urgent student needs in your classroom when you’re back teaching in the new term?

  7. Self-Care. This is important throughout the whole school year. In the summer, keep up your self-care strategies and take the time to do what you need to do to rest, relax and rejuvenate. This will allow you to come back to the new school year ready to respond to student urgent learning needs without sacrificing your own wellness.

Last, but not least, remember that you earned your break and you should enjoy it doing whatever you need to rest, rejuvenate and re-engage with all of the energy and passion you brought to your first year as an educator. 


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The Arts and Mattering

Over the last year, I have been fortunate to be involved in a series of projects that directly link arts education to wellness and belonging.  When asked to summarize how arts education promotes belonging, mattering and wellness, I went straight to the words of my students:

“I chose the arts because it gives me an outlet to explore my creativity and pursue my passion.”

This quotation has not only become the motto of my instructional program, but summarizes my beliefs about arts education, curriculum design, and leadership.

However, this quote cannot exist without supportive communities that uphold critical thinking, risk taking, and collaborative practices.  Mattering and belonging are key to all of the above in order for students to feel confident and comfortable engaging in the practices that allow them to express their voices through an artistic medium. 

I really honestly think the key to classroom success, arts based or not, is culturally relevant pedagogy.

We need to remember that, although there is a curriculum to “get through”, that students are people who all learn at different rates with different needs.

As the coordinator of  a specialized program, I work in collaboration with a team of teachers to build a culture where all students feel comfortable to use the creative process as a vehicle to understand and articulate their voices. Because well-being is at the core of all instructional activities, negative mathematical mindsets are broken down through music education, language skills are developed in our visual arts studios, and resiliency techniques are demonstrated through the performance process.

My students have had numerous opportunities to showcase their learning.  This is because I firmly believe that performance courses need to have real-life, diverse opportunities to not only engage an audience, but to engage the students in authentic learning tasks.  An audience that goes beyond the 28 students in the classroom environment provides a new dynamic where fresh perspectives and voices of feedback can push the work/thinking further. 

The secret to achieving this is rooted in belonging.  The students feel like they belong in the community, and therefore and willing to take risks because they are confident in their choices. 

How do we achieve this sense of belonging through our discipline specific techniques?

  • relevant content that relates to their world

  • choice regarding roles while providing opportunities for everyone to succeed in all aspects of performance (i.e. not everyone is an actor in the company; students can choose to play the roles of directors, writers, or engage in technical theatre)

  • invite focused, positive feedback that pushes the work forward and is not personal

  • clear and consistent deadlines/daily tasks so the students know exactly what they are working on

  • a system for dealing with conflicts when they arise with multiple entry points for voices to be heard

Throughout the year, my students articulated the impact mattering and mindset has on their sense of belonging through leading workshops, presenting performances, and collaborating with conference participants to create original work.   My students consistently the world that building positive relationships while engaging in artistic projects that provide the opportunity to individualize the learning experience is a key factor in their success.

My year started with a new split class. I gave them the framework of wellness as a topic for a performance piece and encouraged them to use their strengths and previous experiences in performance to build something new. This set-off a year of curious creativity. Now it ends with two performance projects, designed by the students, supported by my understanding of the curriculum. As we move through these final weeks, I will adapt and adjust plans accordingly to encourage their success with the learning task.

Here are some tips for encouraging student voice and belonging in your classrooms. Try to be mindful of the in these final weeks, especially going into presentation season:

  • give students a safe space to talk and get to know each other as people. A variety of think/pair/share activities with generic classroom prompts (e.g. talk about something that you are obsessed about in the media right now) will allow the students to get to know each other as people

  • insist that the students know each other’s names and work with everyone in the class on multiple occasions. Be mindful of groupings.

  • involve students in the assessment process by giving them choices in how they learn and show content

  • be present and consistent in your feedback

  • check-in with the students consistently around their successes and challenges in the course

As Ontario educators and students go into the final month of school, I think it’s important to keep present and uphold belonging communities using arts education techniques. With exams and final assessments, students’ wellbeing can be helped or hindered by the approach of the educator in the classroom. My colleagues: keep focused, and to keep encouraging student voice and choice. Students need to continue to chose the arts as an outlet for creativity and passion, and a supported environment where they feel like they matter will make their final projects and assessments 100% stronger.

Don't Erase the Results of Your Break By Adding Stress To Your Return To Work

Go back to your school communities with a strategy plan that encourages a mindset of well-being and actions aligned with your priorities while saying good-bye to bad habits that increase stress.


Starting back after a break/vacation shouldn’t be stressful, but the reality is that many people are anxious with the return for a variety of reasons.

Below is my sixty-two minute reflection guide/strategy planner to help you identify priorities, develop a plan for aligning action, and identify any bad habits that will erase the benefits gained from the break. Let’s make it to the first day back without any additional stress.

Note: although there is a sixty-two minute individual reflection task, the key to this strategy working is realizing that we collaborate and work towards our goals together as an educational community.

This strategy plan isn’t about you spending the weekend working in isolation, rushing to fulfill tasks.

This strategy is about reflection and getting an action plan together so you can facilitate your curriculum tasks with your students/department/school community while keeping your well-being as a focus.

With clear priorities and self-reflection, the work week is less about “getting stuff done” and more about working together to fulfill goals.

May your return from break be focused on solid pedagogy and wellness and not filled with counterproductive stress.


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An Educator’s Sixty-Two Minute Reflection Guide To Prevent Erasing the Results of Your Break

Grab your notebook and let’s reflect.

First Twenty Minutes: Prioritize Your Priorities

Three questions:

  1. What are your priorities?

  2. What things are taking away from your priorities?

  3. What actions will you start/stop/continue to help you align your work with your priorities?

Remember: the educator is a whole person. It’s necessary to have your well-being, and a work/life balance, be a priority. If we are truly educating 21st Century learning competencies, we need to be full participants in our world.

Second Twenty Minutes: Sketch Out the Rough Plan

Now time to put some timelines to your priorities and actionable items.

This planning will be very you specific. My context: secondary teacher entering into exams. My students need consolidation time to demonstrate their learning. They also need instructional opportunities to help them navigate course selection, applying to post-secondary, and managing their wellness during a busy season.

I start with sitting down with my classroom planning calendar and the school calendar for the month and plan backwards, making sure to give some buffer days before the students go into exams just in case weather (yay Canada) causes bus cancellations. Always give yourself flexibility to be proactive about timelines changes beyond your control.

Apply this same practice to all of the initiatives that you participate in. Does your professional learning committee have a presentation at an upcoming staff meeting? Are there promises that you made to produce data or material towards a specific project? Sit down with your calendar and make a plan for accomplishing the tasks without feeling guilty. Remember: a break is a break for educators too.

Final Twenty Minutes: Have That Hard Self-Awareness Talk With Yourself

Look into the future and consider if you might engage in some of these behaviours.

  • After spending time on break, do you enter into Monday with a mindset of guilt?

  • Do you feel like you need to work throughout your lunch period and/or into the wee hours of the night to “make-up” for “lost time”?

  • Do you start every e-mail apologizing for being away?

  • Are you going straight into well-being debt by staying up too late or ignoring your nutrition and/or fitness because all of a sudden, you have become “too busy”?

  • Are your plans aligned with your priorities? If not, why and what might prevent you from changing so your plans do align with your priorities?

If you have ever exhibited any of these behaviours, acknowledge and then stop the cycle. Go back to your priorities. Go back to how your actions align with your priorities.

And, be kind to yourself. Find the root of why you might be exhibiting these behaviours and deal with them. No judgment. No emotion. Have the courageous conversation and then move onto setting actions in place so you don’t fall back into negative work behaviours.

Final Two Minutes: Declare a Transition Period

Now that you have your priorities, and your plan, declare a transition period that fits your educational context and share those prioritizes and planning work with your community.

NOTE: Make sure to dedicate some time for your transition day so everyone can participate in, and align their actions with, the next steps for your educational community. This strategy does not have the same impact without the transition day and co-constructing plans with your community members.

In a classroom context, that might look like co-constructing deadlines with your students, going through the look-fors of the final assessment and identifying, together as a classroom community, where the gaps are and how the gaps will be addressed.

My transition period will be the first day back. 75 minutes decided to co-construction, alignment and being proactive towards our end of semester tasks.

In my theatre courses, the students are working towards their end of semester final performance and reflective exams. On Monday, we will co-construct a calendar that identifies our checkpoints. We will use the criteria from the Ontario Arts Curriculum and co-construct look-fors/next steps using evidence from our class’ portfolio of previous work.

Apply the same concepts to initiative work. How are you using the data, and aligning your data sources, to fulfilling the departments/team/school’s goals? The transition period for facilitating the administrative tasks that I have to do will be extended to a week, where I have identified tasks that need to be finished by certain dates to keep on schedule with facilitating the specialized arts program.

And remember: the students and your colleagues are coming off of break too. Some of them travelled the world. Some of them had a break wasn’t “exciting” or “filled with positive memories.” This transition period will allow everyone to get back into the mindset of your educational community.

Two minutes left in your reflection session. Decide on length, how you’re going share your priorities and co-construct a plan together to align action with practical impact.


Congratulations! That was a good sixty-two minutes of reflection that will have huge impact on your own and your school community’s well-being.

Now that you have this new sense of clarity and alignment, get out there and enjoy the rest of your break.