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Director Reflections on a Day of Swimming in the Deep End

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

Some of our directors have shared reflections on our day of learning with Jennifer Abrams, in partnership with OPC, and show just how much we can each glean from our unique perspectives.

Learning Forward Agenda

Swimming in the Deep End – Superintendent Thoughts by Dawne Boerson

Jennifer Abrams’ message around the importance of being proactive rather than reactive in change management was particularly relevant for myself as a Superintendent of Learning. As I work with our principals to lead the instructional program, I need to create a vision of change, but also a vision of continuity….our staff need to know that we are not simple adding duties, but shifting our work to match the needs of our students. Leaders of change must be able to articulate what is changing, but also what is staying the same. Jennifer noted Blaine Lee’s words that ‘almost all change is a result of violated expectations.’ Therefore, as a system leader, I need to be able to articulate the expectations in a clear way, so that we can avoid conflict over changes we need to make. In attempting to be clear, I must first also understand the expectations of our educators and do the work to align things carefully. Jennifer had many quotes that stood out for me, including, “Don’t commit assume-icide.” Many times, we assume we are all starting from the same point and want to go in the same direction, but Jennifer reminded me that in order to do the good work that includes managing change, I need to know my teachers and principals and think deeply about how we are going to move forward to learn together in order to implement successful change. Jennifer’s energy and wisdom was very timely and relevant as I move into a new year of learning with my system leaders.

Swimming in the Deep End - Principals' Perspectives

Elizabeth Lau and Thelma Sambrook

On August 20th, we were engaged in a day of professional learning with Jennifer Abrams, who shared insights from her book Swimming in the Deep End. As Principals, something that resonated with us was the discussion on distinguishing problems to solve from polarities to manage (Jane Kise - Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in our Schools). There are definitely differences between them, however, when framed in this way, what we might see as a problem to solve in a set time frame can be looked at from the perspective of management over time. We do this all the time as part of the day-to-day work of a leader, regardless of position or title. Jennifer shared that this is not an "either-or" but rather a "yes, and" - for example autonomy and collaboration, continuity and change, work priorities and home priorities and needs of students and needs of staff. As we get ready for the start of a new school year that may hold some uncertainties, we may find ourselves managing several polarities! How might we go about balancing the needs of students and staff? What are we going to do to ensure that we manage our school and home priorities? These all factor into our mental health and well-being so looking at managing these polarities over time should be beneficial to us in the long run. We must commit to change and perhaps the biggest obstacle we may face is ourselves. We cannot simply say we are going to commit to certain things - we must act on them! Actions speak louder than words and, as leaders, we must model this behaviour! We've made our own lists of the polarities we are going to manage and some strategies to address them...what might you be willing to do for the benefit of yourself and others?

Our Conversations Invent Us - Brian Weishar

Jennifer Abrams, known at least in part for her book Having Hard Conversations, reminds us that we don’t always need to be talking about or having “hard conversations” in our work as educators. It’s the day-to-day conversations we need to think about too.

Abrams led the professional learning of about 125 educators at a Learning Forward Ontario and Ontario Principals’ Council co-sponsored event on August 20. The educators who attended came from a variety of roles, including classroom teachers, department heads, school and system principals and vice-principals, superintendents, coaches and professional learning facilitators. During the session, Jennifer allowed us to process a number of ideas, including some from her latest book, Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Skills for Leading Successful School Initiatives.

Abrams began the session with a quote from Harriet Lerner that I kept coming back to during the session, and it continued to send ripple effects for me long after the day was over.

“Our conversations invent us. Through our speech and our silence, we become smaller or larger selves. Through our speech and our silence, we diminish or enhance the other person, and we narrow or expand the possibilities between us. How we use our voice determines the quality of our relationships, who we are in the world, and what the world can be or might become. Clearly a lot is at stake here.” Harriet Lerner.

I’d like to spend some time digging into this quotation. And one of the things I am paying attention to in the middle lines is Lerner’s use of ‘and’ and ‘or.’ It’s “[t]hrough our speech and our silence, we diminish or enhance the other person, and we narrow or expand the possibilities between us.” It’s not a one-to-one correspondence. Speaking does not lead to one thing, and silence to another. Both speech and silence have the power to do both things. So it’s about thinking how both speech and silence can transform our understanding, and therefore the relationships we have with the people with whom we work.

In my roles as professional learning facilitator and coach and as a classroom teacher, Abrams and Lerner are making me think more about how those relationships are defined by knowing when to speak and when not to speak. I think I have become more “fluent” in silence than I was earlier in my career. Here, silence certainly doesn’t mean “absence;” it’s quite the opposite. I think silence means being even more present – it’s about the kind of actively listening that leads to fully understanding the ideas, feelings and possibilities. We can often talk ourselves into understanding, and sometimes speaking allows us to know something we didn’t when we started talking. I think this can also be true when we listen. Sometimes being silent, really listening, allows the listener to find an understanding that perhaps even the speaker hasn’t fully come to know yet. Sometimes articulating that understanding once we have listened, and offering it back to the speaker is how that speaker might truly understand, and even more importantly, how we understand (each other).

I think that’s what gets us to the beginning of Lerner’s quotation, “our conversations invent us.” Not only does knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen help to define our relationship, it can create something new. Abrams helped me understand this a bit more, and has me further thinking about all the conversations I am having, difficult or not.

Swimming in the Deep End: A Day with Jennifer Abrams

Reposted from Deborah McCallum's blog

This particular book is about the professional deep-end work we do in schools: the projects we undertake, the initiatives we are tasked to move forward with, the teams we are in charge of. What I hope this book will do is support you in seeing what the deep-end skills, capacities, and mindsets look for you in your context, with your work as an ever-learning education leader-someone who is growing his or her leadership skills to be effective within your school or organization, no matter your role. If you are looking for some strategies to stay afloat in the deep end, dive on in.” ~ Jennifer Abrams

On Tuesday Aug. 20, In partnership between Learning Forward Ontario and the Ontario Principals’ Council, I had the privilege of being part of a very special event with Jennifer Abrams, author of Swimming in the Deep End. Her session, entitled ‘Swimming in the Deep End: What does it take?’, was excellent. We had the opportunity to learn about how we would each go about developing the educational leadership skills that we need to create change within our schools.

As an Instructional Coach, I was able to think deeply about what skills I need to develop, as they pertains to my own unique situation, and my own work both as a coach and from my own initiative I will be leading for my PQP practicum this fall.

Her Deep-end self-assessment of 4 Foundational Skills was invaluable to me to begin to think about where I felt I needed to focus my own learning. The 4 Skills include:

1. Thinking before you speak

2. Preempting Resistance

3. Responding to Resistance

4. Managing Oneself Through Change and Resistance.

Resistance is a very broad category, and so I believe it is important to become clear as to what exactly about resistance we might find ourselves managing, and how we can do that. JenniferAbrams led us through an entire day of work that enabled us to think through this as they pertain to our own situations and lenses. It is not a matter of ‘if’ you will experience resistance, but ‘when’ you will face resistance. This is because there are so many needs, values, goals and polarities at play that need to be aligned. It is very important to me that I can now specifically think about how I can understand these challenges that will be inherent in my own initiatives, and in those of my school board that I am responsible for.

It is one thing to meet people where they are at – this is essential to building relationships. It is another issue to swim in the deep end and communicate in ways that could create discomfort for the purposes of learning, and the purposes of helping our students achieve the best education they can. As Jennifer said, we are also in the business of thinking about the adults we work with, and not just the students. We are developing and supporting those teachers who in turn support the students. How will I provide opportunities to help them see that they are making an impact and developing? How will I help provide the professional learning that will help make changes for the betterment of the students?

My own philosophy is that learning is hard, challenging and uncomfortable, and we have to push ourselves through it in order to learn. Some people say that we always need to have strong relationships first in order to build trust. However, I have also come to believe that we can also build strong relationships based on trust by Swimming in the Deep End together. Depending upon the people we are learning with, I do think that some of the strongest learning comes from working through challenging circumstances together, with willing spirits.

In my role as an Instructional Coach, yes we are working to shape quality learning experiences for the students, however, we are also deeply working with the adults, for the sake of the students. We are developing and supporting those who support the students. We provide those opportunities to help teachers see how they are making an impact and developing in their professional practice for the students. We think about what is the professional learning that we will provide at our school. Therefore, I ask myself about how we are growing and teaming while making changes for the sake of the students? I have learned with Jennifer that this includes the ability to embed regular moments of reflection.

Implementing regular moments of reflection reminds me of the Coaching/Teaching Cycles we engage with in our practice, in our school board SCDSB. We call it co-planning, co-teaching and co-debriefing. To me, the debrief is the most important component.

I have found through personal experience that coaching is not nearly rich enough unless there is formal time set aside for a rich debrief session. This is the part of the action plan were we can truly stop and reflect. It takes courage to just sit, look back on the lesson. Courage to recognize what might not have done as well as we had hoped, to look at what the data is telling us through, look back and look ahead. This is the input that is essential to improving and moving forward. I really appreciate that Jennifer highlights the importance of setting up regular moments for true reflection for these very reasons.

Something else that really stood out to me was Jennifer Abram’s inter-generational work. It suddenly hit me that the new teachers are 20 years younger than I am, and that we have grown up in completely different worlds. (I have no idea how this happened, lol). I obviously coach all age groups, but to realize that new teachers have grown up in a different world, it is important to think about the implications of this in terms of how I coach.

It resonated with me that Jennifer Abrams was discussing the importance of understanding what others values are and how they need to align with the school and board goals, but also to articulate clearly how they will maintain autonomy over their practice.

I am now also thinking deeper about how I will plan my own initiatives and deliver the key messages. As I embark on my PQP Practicum this school year in my role as an Instructional Coach, I will be continually revisiting and reflecting upon the components of Jennifer’s Deep-end self-assessment (that you can find in her book, Swimming in the Deep End) and her four foundational skills: a) Thinking before you speak, b) Preempting resistance, c) Responding to Resistance, d) Managing Oneself through Change and Resistance.

I am very excited to take my Learning Forward this year after this wonderful session with Jennifer Abrams.

Swimming in the Deep End with Jennifer Abrams-

Reposted from Brenda Sherry's Blog

In was wonderful to attend a Learning Forward Ontario and Ontario Principals’ Council event on August 20, where Jennifer Abrams, author of Having Hard Conversations shared insights from her new book called “Swimming in the Deep End” with Ontario teachers, coaches, principals and other school and district leaders. Jennifer really makes her practice come to life by walking the talk: connecting with her audience, building trust by sharing lots of relatable stories, and showing some of her vulnerability as a coach and a co-learner.  It’s not very often that a facilitator from out of the country takes the time to dive into the Ontario context the way that Jennifer did to make her information and stories so meaningful to us, and I felt deeply appreciative of that!

The learning was focused on the kinds of resistance we sometimes face, especially in times when the people we serve feel vulnerable and disempowered.  Jennifer provided a lot of background information to give us an opportunity to reflect on why this resistance might occur: lack of trust, communication or collaboration issues, cultural implications and generational considerations, to name a few.  While the day was packed with amazing information and a book list to keep me following up for ages to come, two key areas really stood out as relevant to my current situation and the professional learning that I’m engaged in right now: asking the right questions and understanding the difference between problems to solve and polarities to manage.

I’m an optimist by nature and, I believe, a better listener than talker. My natural tendency is to ask more than tell, to listen and reflect, more than direct.  I loved the lists of questions that Jennifer provided to add to my repertoire, both in the kinds of questions and sentence starters that will help broach difficult topics, and to support reflection on my role as a collaborative team member.  I loved the opening quote that she shared from a book that I need to read:

“Our conversations invent us. Through our speech and our silence, we become smaller or larger selves. Through our speech and our silence, we diminish or enhance the other person, and we narrow or expand the possibilities between us. How we use our voice determines the quality of our relationships, who we are in the world, and what the world can be and might become. Clearly, a lot is at stake here."

Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection

The other strong connection I made during the day was about Problems to Solve vs. Polarities to Manage. This reminded me so much of the wicked problems that face us as educators and the need to develop problem solving models that involve really deeply understanding the issues and empathizing with and involving all stakeholders along the way. I liked hearing how we need to move away from ‘Either-Or” thinking to ‘Yes, And’ approaches.  Jennifer pointed us to the work of Jane Kise in Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools and I think this will be the place for me to start in follow-up learning to this amazing day! Thanks Jennifer!

My River, My Mountain-  A Day of Learning with Jennifer Abrams

Reposted from Noa Daniel's blog

I took on a bevy of different lenses throughout my day of learning to swim in the deep end with Jennifer Abrams and my learning teams. Learning Forward Ontario partnered with Ontario Principals' Council to bring author and consultant Jennifer Abrams to lead us through the foundational skills she discusses in her newest book, Swimming in the Deep End. We hosted this event at Richmond Green, which made it accessible to the 7 boards that were represented and the over 125 attendees.  

Our first activity was to introduce ourselves by using the prompt: my river, my mountain. Jennifer modelled this by providing a literal geographic example from her home in California (Pacific Ocean, Sierra Madres) but invited us to use it as a metaphor to initiative a dialogue with our partners.  I’ve extended the metaphor to frame my reflections. I see rivers as something that flow, and mountains represent challenges. 

As a classroom teacher and in my work outside of school, I think a lot about andragogy (teaching adults) versus pedagogy (teaching children). They have often been posed as polarities, but there are many things that they have in common. Jennifer referred to a list called Adult Learning Assumptions, and the two assumptions that resonated most are the ones that I believe connect andragogy and pedagogy. The first reads, “Adults have a drive toward competence, which is linked to self-image and efficacy.” I see that as equally true for children. 

Struggling with a sense of self is why many students and adults don’t build efficacy, so if this is a key to learning at any age, it makes me wonder why we wouldn’t nurture this more in general and, especially, in schools. Some of these expectations are embedded in Ontario’s Health curriculum, but helping students develop a positive self concept or become more efficacious are things we can help students learn. As such, it should be embedded in the Learning Skills. How we can promote these essential transferable skills?  

The bottom of the list noted that, “Learning is the continual process of identity formation, or growing into more of who you are becoming.” I wish this was discussed more in pedagogy. Learning and identity are interrelated, so if more teachers created opportunities for students to be and see themselves at school and use learning experiences to inquire into who they are and how they view themselves, they could learn more effectively. As culturally responsive educators, we need to consider all social identities and their intersections. We can do more to embed self exploration and discovery of self through school. Wouldn't it be amazing if students were carried by a river of learning that helped them unfold a better sense of themselves?

If there is one goal that I have this year in relation to teaching students, it’s equity. This a mountain that I started climbing a few years ago, and I’ve been doing a lot of unlearning along the way.  Jennifer helped me articulate questions that I hope will help improve my practice and work towards the ideal that all of my students feel seen and valued and that there is a clear sense of fairness in my classroom. Here are the ten driving questions that I took from the day to assist in the climb:

1. How can we build the deep relational trust needed to help individual students learn?

2. Are we living up to what we expect from students?

3. How can we look through the social identity lenses at learners and improve our communication with them in order to become more culturally       responsive educators?

4. How can we become more proactive and allocentric when confronting resistance? 

5. How can we see and help our students overcome invisible boundaries?

6. How can we pose better questions so that all of our students can answer them?

7. How can we manage our facial reactions to interact with students in perpetually courteous and respectful ways?

8. How can we demonstrate our belief in their competence?

9. What questions are we asking/could we be asking about whose voices are being heard, whose voices aren’t being shared and whose voices are being silenced?

10. If you know/can anticipate that students are going to be negative about a learning experience (I teach Grade 8; it’s pretty much a given), how can we subtly request that they suspend cynicism and open their minds to what is to come?

If being an impactful educator for my students is my goal, then there ain’t no mountain high enough...ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from it. Thank you, Jennifer, for helping me on the journey. I’ve added many new tools and a power pose to my skill sets.

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