An Interview with Shannon Smith
Cross-posted to doug—off the record
I first met Shannon at an OTF Professional Learning event but we stayed in touch over the years through our use of Social Media. While at the event, we agreed upon the need for global connections, but we both could see the need to push for something uniquely Ontario. This fall, Shannon assumes the role of Principal at Glen Cairn Public School in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board. I used this as an opportunity to interview her as she makes this big, exciting move.
Doug: Congratulations on the appointment to Principal at Glen Cairn. This must be an exciting time for you.
Shannon: Thanks, Doug. This is indeed a very exciting time for me. I am still amazed at how lucky I am to be a Principal in a really progressive district here in Ontario.
Doug: Your background is strong as a Special Education teacher before entering administration. What unique attributes do you bring to the school because of this?
Shannon: That is a tough one because I cannot imagine any educator not having the same high level of commitment to every student – those who struggle as well as those for whom school comes easily. I can say that having a daughter with a developmental disability drew me to Special Education and I think that she has had a greater impact on my philosophy than any level of specialist training I hold.
Having said that, as a Special Education teacher, you are afforded many opportunities to work with families who are going through difficult times. Every single time I sit with a family who is learning, perhaps for the first time, that their child is “different” from typical children, I am keenly aware of what that experience can feel like. I have learned so much from sitting and listening to parents as they share their fears, their hopes and their love for their child.
Doug: A while back, I had written the post “Your School Doesn’t Need a Newsletter”. When I visit the Glen Cairn website, I see icons for Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, and YouTube. is this a sign that you’re prepared to go paperless?
Shannon: Glen Cairn PS had made some moves towards less paper before my arrival. They did away with agendas in favour of online homework calendars (google) and a few teachers already have blogs. I will still send home paper notices from time to time, but I do plan to rely quite heavily on digital means for communication. We are using our blog and those other services you mention, as well as weekly synrevoice messages (email and automated phone calls). After speaking with staff at GCPS, I discovered that a very small percentage of families do not have access to the internet at home and this is why I plan to use a combination of paper and digital communication.
The more important shift for me is from broadcast only to two-way communication. Digital communication facilitates this, if used effectively. The caveat is that communication with the learning community must invite participation. Using blogs and social media will only be “old wine in new bottles” if we don’t also shift to engaging in dialogue. It is not enough to broadcast what you are doing. We know that parents play a key role in supporting learning, and so whatever choices I make around communication channels, I must look for ways to draw the community into discussions and decision-making.
Doug: Related to this, do you see eBooks and electronic textbooks in Glen Cairn’s future?
Shannon: Great question. GCPS is about to transition from a K – 8 school to a middle school next year. There are many decisions to be made and I intend to have staff involved in making decisions related to our future. Personally, I like to offer a variety of types of learning materials. I don’t feel a huge need for e-textbooks because I think that textbooks are too linear and limited. I would prefer to spend that money on teachers — supporting staff who want to try new approaches, acquire tools that they will use meaningfully with students. If someone wants to try something new, I want to be in a position to support that.
Doug: Glen Cairn is located in the heart of Kanata, one of Canada’s high technology centres. Does this put extra importance on the use of technology effectively at the school?
Shannon: I don’t know if it puts additional importance, but it may mean that we have some parents who are quite accustomed to using technology in innovative ways. It is critical that we foster digital literacy within our students, regardless of where the school is situated.
Doug: Is or will Glen Cairn be a BYOT school? What do you see as the possibilities for this? Is there a concern that some students will not bring technology of their own to school?
Shannon: Students in intermediate grades will have the opportunity to use their own technology at school. This is our first year with wireless, so there is going to be a learning curve. If students are unable to bring technology, they will not be left out because we will make it a priority to ensure that everyone has access. Stay tuned as we move into BYOD!
Doug: There may come a time when you add additional staff members to your school. How important is a strong technical background coming into the position?
Shannon: I will be adding many new staff members next year, as we are projected to double in size when we transition to being a middle school. You can bet that a strong interest and comfort level with technology will be an asset. I will be looking for teachers who are master learners first and foremost. I have already begun conversations with staff members who will stay when we make the change to explore what strengths we already have and what gaps will need to be filled. For instance, we have an instrumental music teacher and a Core French teacher with a strong Visual Arts background. We will be looking for individuals with strong backgrounds in Math, Literacy, Science and Physical Education. We intend to link with our neighbouring High School whenever possible and I believe that a solid comfort level with connective technologies will play a key role in that relationship.
Doug: Will you do a Social Media “check” of applicants?
Shannon: I will pay added attention to individuals who highlight a positive digital footprint in their application. I have pondered the “check” quite a bit and I don’t think at this time that I would do that. I must admit though, that I do expect an applicant to have spent some time researching the school online and to be able to articulate, based on what he or she finds, how she or he will compliment the school team.
Doug: I note that the Glen Cairn website is created using WordPress whereas other OCDSB websites are templates from Sharepoint. What do you see as the advantage of a web presence this way?
Shannon: Nice catch! I am a wordpress gal. I tried google sites this summer and just couldn’t get the site to do what I wanted. I want strong social integration. I want it to look pretty and I want it to be very accessible. I have to admit I don’t know much about the inner workings of Sharepoint, but I found the template very limiting. I like easy and seamless.
Doug: One of my favourite Ontario blogs has always been “ShannonInOttawa”. You’ve been very transparent with your learnings there. Will that continue? Will there be a “ShannonThePrincipalInOttawa” blog instead?
Shannon: Thanks, Doug. I will keep with ShannoninOttawa, although I anticipate many cross-posts to http://glencairnps.ca because I intend to share my personal learnings there too. I think that posting my own learning on the school blog might engage parents, students and staff in conversations about learning. I also think that when I share about my own learning, I model what I expect of all members of the school community. I will look for feedback and pushback too, although I know it will likely take some time for community members to feel safe engaging in those conversations online.
Doug: In your new position, you will not have the assistance of a vice-principal. Can your use of technology help with this? How?
Shannon: Yes! In a sense I am filling two positions this year – principal and vice-principal. Within those roles I wear many other hats. I rely heavily on technology to keep me organized, to help me stay current in my professional reading and lead the instructional program, and to build relationships and communicate with my community.
I stay organized with a google calendar. My husband is also a Principal in our District and we have two children (Violet is 12 and Donovan is 10). We have swimming lessons, skating, dancing, skiing. We have 2 staff meetings and 2 parent council meetings every month. I also have many meetings with parents, community members and professionals every week, as well as District PLCs and operations meetings. The google calendar is indispensable.
I subscribe to many blog feeds with my google reader and I check it from time to time to stay current on what others are saying about education around the world. I use Diigo to bookmark and share great finds on the web and I also use twitter to share. That way, I can go back and find the gems when I want to reference them, either in a blog post, or a PD session with staff or community.
I blog to share and solicit feedback on my thinking and vision. I think that adopting a stance of openness has given me some initial credibility within the GCPS learning community. I hope that as we head into a fairly large change process, that trust will continue to grow. I expect push back too, because that is all part of engaging in honest dialogue. And while the face to face conversations are real, connections that happen with Social media can be a great starting point.
Doug: You’ve been a leadership voice in the Connected Principals initiative. http://connectedprincipals.com/ Now that you’ll be attending principals meetings and professional learning opportunities, do you see the Ottawa Carleton influence growing?
Shannon: I hope so. There are many leaders in the OCDSB beginning to “get” the benefits of connected learning and leadership. I believe that we are about to see a “tipping point” within leadership across the province as more school leaders realize the power of harnessing technology across all domains of leadership, from instruction to relationship building.
Doug: Bizarre as it may seem this early in your stint, there will come a time when you move from Glen Cairn. In the sentence, “We remember Mrs. Smith when she was principal. She was responsible for ……”, how would you like to complete that sentence?
Shannon: “… helping us to have a smooth transition to a middle school environment”. That is my priority at this point.
Doug: One last question — you’re speaking at the ECOO Conference in October. Can you give us a preview and inspiration to circle your sessions on our calendars?
Shannon: I will be speaking in two different sessions. The first is called, “Innovation or Novelty?” and it will be a lively discussion amongst participants, co-hosted by my husband, Brent Smith (@OttawaBrent). Our aim is to tease out some of our beliefs around the role of technology with regards to fostering innovation, creativity and critical thinking in schools. What role does tinkering play in the classroom? Is there a space for playing around, or should we be demanding more rigour in our learning environments?
For the second session I will join Brian Harrison (@bharrisonp) to explore how we can use personal devices to capture, document and celebrate learning. This session will look at how we can provide timely feedback to students and parents and streamline some of our assessment practices using smartphones and other “pocket” technologies.
Doug: Thanks for your time and your thoughts. I wish you all the best in your new setting and hope to see that you find the time to continue the online leadership that you have provided in the past.
You can follow Shannon’s education thoughts at http://www.shannoninottawa.ca.