Substitute Teachers – Go From a Supply Teacher to a Contract

This month I had the absolute priviledge of working with 45 substitute teachers at the ATA Substitute Teachers Conference in Calgary.  The session I facilitated focussed on moving from a substitute / supply teacher position into a contract.  One of the best ways to do this, is to be a brilliant substitue teacher!  Be noticed, wow them, do an amazing job and the Principal of the school will want you on their staff.  But, let’s face it, some substitute teachers are better than others.

What does a brilliant substitue teacher do to stand out from the rest?

With large school boards employing hundreds and hundreds of substitute teachers, what can you do to stand out, to make an impression, to be the one who gets the contract?  Together at the conference, we answered this question.

To prepare for the session, I did some reading and thinking about what makes an excellent teacher.  Really, an excellent substitute teacher needs to have the same skills and values that an excellent teacher has.  The main difference being, a substitute teacher demonstrates their skills differently give the different role they fill.  You can read more about excellence in teaching by clicking  here.

Eventually, I categorized the skills and values of excellence in teaching into four main categories:

  • Communication
  • Flexibility
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientousness

Agreeablness and Conscientousness come from The Big Five Personality studies.  Click here for more on Big Five.  Essentially out of the five personality traits identified in the studies, a combination of aggreeablness and conscientousness are essential qualities in highly successfull employees,

The group looked at these four categories and began generating ideas and examples.

For a substitute teacher, what does each of these categories look like in a day to day basis in the classroom?

Through answering this question, the following guide was developed.

sub teacher


 With this one page guide, substitute teachers are encouraged to read it, understand it, and live it.  Take it with you each day as a guideline for excellence.  This guide represents the work of 45 educators.  Although it is comprehensive, it can always be added to.  Additionally, as your work as a substitute teacher moves into longer contract work, the main headings of this document will remain the same but you can add in any adjustments you have made.  For example, under communication, a contracted teacher would need to add “Clear and concise report card comments.”

Thank you to the ATA for the opportunity to engage in this work.

The 2 Most Important Skills Every Teacher Needs

Over the past nine years I have had the pleasure of hiring (and the displeasure of firing) new hires into their teaching careers.  In watching teachers come into the profession some just “have it.”  Some seem to be innately programmed to be teachers.  For others, it is a much more difficult road to travel.  Additionally, there has been much awareness brought up about “teacher burn-out” and teachers not being able to survive this profession.

It has taken nine years of watching, listening, and observing to come to understand that there are two distinct differences between teachers that excel and love the profession, and those that do not excel and are prone to burn-out.

1.  Reflective Practice

The power of a reflective teacher is unstoppable.  What I have noticed about reflective teachers is through their abilities to analyze, clarify, pinpoint and adjust their practice they move into a distinct zone of improvement.  The improvement becomes noticeable each week.

The reflective teacher knows how to:

  • Create lessons designed for specific purposes and to meet specific outcomes;
  • Adjust these lessons to the needs of different students;
  • Observe students;
  • Talk about and share successful and unsuccessful features of the lesson;
  • Create a better lesson based on this information;

When a teacher is able to get into this reflective flow, they become intellectually engaged and oriented to supporting the learning of their students.  With this engagement their practice becomes energizing, goal oriented, and challenging.

2.  Coachability

Hand in hand with reflective practice is coachability.  Coachability speaks to the teachers capacity to:

  • hear feedback;
  • analyze and understand the feedback;
  • implement the feedback into their teaching.

Without this, it is unlikely a teacher will be successful in growing and learning themselves. They become closed and rigid to ideas and suggestions and feel there is no other way to do things; what they do now is good because they have always done it.  Unfortunately, a teacher who is not reflective or coachable has difficulty adjusting their practice to the needs of different learners.  This leads to frustration with their students, and often a mindset of changing others rather than changing themselves.  We all know changing others is a futile task, and here comes teacher burn-out.

English: A teacher and young pupils at The Bri...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What can I do now?

The good part is it can be easy to develop the skills of reflectiveness and coachability if you don’t already have them.

  • Be open-minded; you need to learn something new everyday;
  • Listen;
  • Take notes; what are you doing and what are others doing that is successful or unsuccessful (we learn from our mistakes);
  • Work with colleagues; in all ways – open up your practice;
  • Ask questions.

We know that teaching is a demanding, busy, spontaneous profession.  Thriving in it is possible when we understand that those who thrive are reflective and coachable.

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Be A Better Principal Through Collegiality

Who Was Your Teacher Today? Teachers Learning From Teachers.

I recently shared a TwitPic I had found online.  To my surprise (sort of) the picture resulted in about 40 retweets and 30 new followers.  For me, this amount of response is unusually high so the picture obviously struck a chord.notes

As you can see, the picture depicts what looks like high school students taking pictures of information on the screen.  It is titled Note Taking in 2012 which leads us to believe and imply that students are using their own devices (BRING YOUR OWN DEVICE BYOD) to take pictures of notes rather than using the paper pencil method.

The twitter post resulted in some interesting comments:

@lorilynnecullen No BYOD policy & no phones in class in my district. Post notes on my website & use remind101 for my 6th graders & families.

I only have one response to this, “WHY?”  When students use their own devices to communicate, find information, and store information what  we are essentially telling them in schools that ban BYOD is, “We are not going to be efficient and current and engage you in ways of thinking and learning that you automatically and intuitively use outside of the classroom.”  Schools are supposed to be current, relevant and engaging so why are you banning BYOD?  I’m glad @ChristinaMLuce is making the best of it and doing what she can.

@lorilynnecullen any other form of note taking is a complete waste of time.

I like this.  Life is too short for long hand.  We can gather and store static information in an instant.  What are you using your classroom time for?

Stephen Turner ‏@SteveT_AU @lorilynnecullen Great, but even quicker would just be getting digital copy straight to device. Taking pic of board is pretty analogue…

@SteveT_AU should work for the district that has banned BYOD.  He obviously has a strong understanding of efficiency and using  classroom time as efficiently as possible.

R.T. Chidiac ‏@RChids@lorilynnecullen one more way to differentiate instruction also builds capacity for the ethical use of technology #edchat #edtech


I love twitter most for this reason; educators analyzing, understanding and describing authentic practice.  I would love to see this picture as the answer to “Show me one way you differentiate for students who struggle with written output.”  Also, @R.T.Chidiac could influence the No BYOD district with his point here about ethical use.
Michael Dushel ‏@MichaelDushel@lorilynnecullen Better would be for the teacher to email it or EVEN better would be to build the notes together in shared electronic form
Shelly Vee ‏@raspberryberet3 @MichaelDushel @lorilynnecullen this is awesome butI agree Michael; more effective if build notes together to #constructknowledge

I love how @MichaelDushel replied to the picture and as he was replying took his understanding of constructing knowledge together even one step further.  He makes a great point, that if this is a picture of a teacher writing or delivering information to students who listen, surely we can do better by constructing and creating understanding together.

The above are examples of critical dialogue amongst teachers that improves practice.  As Michael Fullan states:

For teachers to improve their practice they learn best from other teachers provided that these teachers are also working on improvement. These exchanges are thus purposeful, and based on evidence.

Thank you to my colleagues for creating purposeful dialogue and exchanges designed to improve our thinking and our practice.  Where would we be without each other?

Maximize Your Impact as a School Principal

So many things happen at school around Christmas time.  We are busy with concerts, activities, food drives, helping families with gift baskets and gift cards, making presents for parents and learning Christmas traditions.  We get all wound up with all this business and typically its a race against the clock to get everything done.

This year, a Christmas card showed up in mailbox.  It was from a grade 5 student who had come to our school last year from a different city.  He had had a rocky school history, battling with behavioral and attentional issues.  There had been good days and bad, but here is what the card said,

Dear Mrs. Cullen,

Thank you for taking care of our school and helping this school to be an awesome place.  I think you run this school really good.  Thank you for helping me when I am angry and supporting me and encouraging me to do awesome.  Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

After I read the card a few times, I really started thinking about his message and the things he had taken the time to mention.  I want all students in the school this way so maybe if I focus on:

  • “this school”  –  having a whole school presence. Being around the school and visible every day and in all aspects of school life.  Dropping in to classrooms, clubs, and intramurals.  Being visible during entry and exit both inside and out.
  • “helping me when I am angry” – let’s face it, I’m here to help.  In the good times and the bad.  When students are having a bad moment, when they are angry, or frustrated, or mad I am here to help students cope with those emotions, not punish them for having these emotions.  The best part about each new day is that it is a new day.  Everyone gets to start over without yesterday hanging over them.
  • “supporting and encouraging me to do awesome” – all kids, all the time.  What can I do to create the conditions where children are successful?  HIMG-20121220-00008ow can I manipulate or change the conditions or routines to support children?


Ending the year with this message that reminded me of my true work as a school principal was a delightful gift.  Funny how our students are able to identify what is important to them and for school leaders.




The Edublog Awards – 2012 Nominations

2012 has been a great year!  It has been my first year of edublogs, twitter and my own blog is about to turn one year old.  I have learned so much!  Below are my nominations for the 2012 Edublogs.  

Individual Blog – Stephen Hurley

Best Group Blog – Canadian Education Association Blog

Student Blog – North America Meets South America  Grade 12 Student Autumn Shaw reflects on her grade 12 year on an International Student Exchange in Paraguay.

Administrator Blog – Principal Greg Miller

Influential Post – Math Facts Plus Stop Watches Don’t Equal Success 

Individual Tweeter – Shira Liebowitz

Twitter Hashtag – #edchat Its the one I use the most and read the most!

Free Web Tool – Kidblog

Social Network – Twitter

Thank you to everyone for their contributions to the online world of edu.  It’s been a great year!

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How to Stop Talking and Start Teaching

This year, as I begin to understand and implement the notion of Instructional Leadership into my practice the saying, “Just because I said it, doesn’t mean they learned it.” seems to becoming more and more meaningful.  I find that with my staff, I am a great teller.  I tell people all sorts of things everyday.  However, in order to truly IMPROVE, and make noticeable gains with SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT, teacher practice has to shift.  Teachers have to learn and grow; if they need to learn, one of my main roles is to teach them, not just tell them.

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarte...

Image via Wikipedia

In study after study, the evidence is clear.  Dr. Rick DuFour could not say it in more simple terms:

“Two different comprehensive syntheses of research on the factors impacting student learning have come to the same conclusion: the most important variable in the achievement of students is the quality of instruction they receive on a daily basis (Marzano, 2003; Hattie, 2009). To ensure students learn at higher levels, simply improve teaching.

Simply improve teaching sounds simple enough.  The two questions I am currently pondering are, “What is my role in improving teacher practice?; and, “How do I improve teacher practice?”

What is My Role in Improving Teacher Practice

Short and sweet, this IS my role.  If I am about being a principal who makes the school the best school I can, who makes it a place where all children learn everyday, and who is determined and focussed on school improvement, then improving teaching practice gets down to the heart of the matter.  I could focus on the by-product of ineffective teaching practice such as low test scores, high suspension rates, unhappy students, unhappy parents etc, but this would not solve the base problem.  I am 100% convinced that strong, effective teachers utilizing strong, effective teaching practices all the time, everyday result in steady school improvement.  Steady school improvement results in a reduction of under performing students, a reduction in acts of violence and opposition, and a reduction in unhappy parents and students.  So now that I am convinced, how do I do this?  How do I improve teacher practice?

How Do I Improve Teacher Practice?

Well, first of all, let me say I am working on figuring this out.  I am by no means an expert in “how” but I have figured out a few things!

1.  Weekly Professional Development (PD). With the increased use of our Staff Intranet/E-Bulletin Board, for the past 2 years we have been posting all item information, and announcements.  This allows us to have very few items on our weekly staff meeting agenda thus freeing us up for PD time.  We are currently running 30-45 minutes per week of teacher PD where all teachers are working together.

2.  PD Design. Here is where I rely on Robert Marzano and The Art and Science of Teaching.  For example: In past years, before report card writing started, we would have a staff meeting where I would review the expectations of report card writing, how to write comments, the rules for putting in certain marks etc.  Then teachers would go off, on their own and write their report cards.  When finished, they would turn them into the admin team for review.  Often when teachers would turn their reports in they would say things like “I hope these are right.”  This got me thinking…

Cover of "The Art and Science of Teaching...

Cover via Amazon

This year, our pre-report card writing was PD – it had lesson design!  Teachers worked together in table groups to identify important information needed in report cards.  They worked together to decide upon the order of this important information.  Then I passed out my guide “How to Write Report Card Comments.”  We compared what they had figured out and what I had figured out.  Then we practiced writing some report card comments on actual students.  Together we created a rubric so they could assess their own work and the work of their colleagues.  They asked themselves, “Does this work meet the criteria we developed for the rubric?”  The results of this work were amazing!  Teachers interacted with new knowledge then applied their new knowledge.  Learning success!!

3.  Professional Learning Communities.  Previously I wrote a post on PLC‘s Professional Learning Communities This post will give you some information on our PLC journey.  The most exciting thing we are doing this year with PLC’s is our PLC observations.  I believe that watching a person teach, then analyzing and debriefing observations, then setting goals for their own teacher practice will in and of itself result in improved teaching practice.  I have plans to also add in The Walk-About to our PLC Observations.

4.  Find and encourage PD outside of the school.  Yeah for Webinars!  What a great way to get information to people from their own laptops.  My role is to be the scavenger and finder of great PD opportunities outside of the school either face to face or Webinar.  My role is to also support teachers in managing time and in some cases finances to access quality PD.

5.  Questions and Questioning.  One of my main “need to-dos” this year is to ask more questions.  When working with teachers, debriefing in meetings,or  analyzing practice I find that asking questions designed to support teachers in synthesizing new information results in a whole different type of understanding.  See Feedback vs Feedforward for more thoughts on this.

One of the most fortunate events that has occurred for me is that our Area Director also believes in Principal PD and Improving the Practice of Principals.  This has led to some of the best PD I have been apart of in my career.  Each month, a large group of Principals meets together to get smarter!  With this, I am hoping to continue and develop my understandings of Effective Instructional Leadership.  I am very interested in finding out how other Principals are working with their staff on the notions of “Simply Improve Teaching,”Just Because I Said It, Doesn’t Mean They Learned It,” and “Instructional Leadership.”

Professional Learning Communities…

A new Landaff teacher in the 1940s watches as ...

Image via Wikipedia

It is said by the Dufours  that successful PLC’s are the one, single most powerful force in creating school improvement and increasing student achievement.  This sounds simple, but…  Teachers and school staff cannot participate in and achieve high functioning PLC’s themselves, it is contingent upon me as Principal to provide teachers with the tools, skills and capacities to perform as high functioning PLC’s.  To this end, here is what I know, what I do and what I think….


Our PLC’s began several years ago by grouping teachers together to meet once a week to talk about students…. simple as that.  Quickly I realized that to get to the guts and deep understandings about student learning, and to create engagement and participation by all teachers, we needed a protocol.  This led to the next two years of PLC meetings, with a protocol or meeting format, with requirements for engaging in discussions about student progress and by incorporating teaching and learning strategies to support students.  We were doing our meetings, as mandated, and we were learning together.


It’s a dangerous thing to read books and articles because I quickly realize what I do not do and what I do not know.  This realization spurs me into immediate action to change and do differently.  Luckily, I have a staff who accepts that I constantly change my mind, change how I want things done, and constantly look for a better way.

This fall was no different.  Beginning this year our PLC’s had three teachers in them.  I chose three so each teacher would have a voice, have a chance to participate and have time to talk and listen.  More than three I feel is too many because inevitably someone will not have a chance to be heard.  I also choose to have multi-grade PLC’s.  This is for a variety of reasons.  Mainly so that the meetings do not turn into grade level meetings talking about planning and prepping.  However, we are finding many hidden gems and benefits of having multi-grade PLC’s.

The case for multi-grade PLC’s:  I like PLC’s with teachers from different grade levels.  I find that this grouping allows teachers to be exposed to curriculum and teaching styles and skills from different grades.  This assists teachers in incorporating strategies they many not otherwise.  For example: when a grade 3 teacher talks to a kindergarten teacher and realizes the strategies and resources a kindergarten teacher uses to support their learners, this often enables the grade 3 teacher to think about how to use these strategies in their own classrooms.  Multi-grade PLC’s results in the opportunities for teachers to share knowledge about students they have taught in past years.  This type of PLC also builds capacity in teachers.  When a grade 3 teacher looks at a writing sample from a grade 1 student or grade 5 student, they build their understandings of how students develop from year to year.

Bringing PLC’s to Life

A variety of twists and turns with budgeting and staffing led to the opportunity to have teachers supported with an additional staff member after the year had begun.  As I am steadfast about this PLC work and I know that what you give time and energy to is what improves, I devised an idea to bring PLC’s to life.  What I mean by this is that now teachers have a chance to observe their PLC teaching partners as they teach.  Once every six weeks, a teacher will be provided with the “additional teacher” so that they can leave their classrooms and observe their two other team members for half a day each.  To make this meaningful, we have worked together as a staff on many occasion to build our understandings of the purpose of PLC’s and also have formative assessment.  This led to a PLC Observation guide which supports teachers in “looking” for certain things while they observe.

PLC Observations   Click here to take a look at our PLC Observation Guide.

Following the week of PLC Observations, the team members meet together to debrief, explain their learnings, ask questions or “wonders” and set a teaching goal for themselves for the next six weeks.

Where We Are Today

Last week I had the opportunity to watch a webinar presented by Solution Tree featuring the DuFours and  This opened and challenged my thinking about how we will move the PLC’s into more everyday ways of being and working.  I bought their book Learning by Doing and am just beginning to read and think more about how to continue to grow and develop into High Functioning PLC’s.  On my previous post The Walk-About I detailed one of our next steps we are adding to our processes. 

Where We Are Going

The path we are going down is the pathway to ensure that each student is appropriately programmed for each day.  We seek to understand our learners and their learning needs.  We strive for Personalized Learning that provides an appropriate, purposeful and engaging education for each child, each day.  Our work in PLC’s supports us in understanding what students need to learn, how we will know when each student has learned it, and how we will respond when a student experiences difficulty.

The World of Blog…

English: Head teacher and pupils outside Hebel...

Image via Wikipedia

Once upon a time I wanted to write a book about everything I think and everything I have learned about being a School Principal.  That job seemed just too big so instead I am going to venture into The World of Blog.  I have ideas for what I will include here… let’s hope I can get it moving and grow it into something fantastical.  Any ideas or feedback is always appreciated!


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