christopherwooleyhand

Pulling the Goat

After graduating from college in 1987, I served in the Peace Corps for two years.  I was assigned to the tiny island nation of St. Kitts/Nevis in the West Indies.  The islands in the Caribbean are beautiful, but the economies struggle due the challenges of maintaining industry and tourism structures.

The people in the West Indies were very accepting of Americans, although many of them thought that we were all just like the people on the TV show Dallas.  It was a life-changing experience for me.  In many ways it put me on a path that has taken me to where I am today.

When I arrived on the island, I immediately began doing the things people associate with the romantic vision of Peace Corps service.  I bought two chickens so that I would have eggs.  Neither bird ever laid an egg.  I eventually ate them both.  I also bought a goat with idea that it would keep the grass around my house trimmed.  Of course, it didn’t like the grass in my yard, so I had to walk it a half mile down the road every morning to a nice patch of grass that it preferred.

Walking the goat every morning taught me some important lessons.  I don’t know if every goat is the same, but mine didn’t like to be led or pulled.  He wanted to go in front and resisted every effort to be pulled in a direction that I wanted to go.  I eventually relented and usually got where I wanted to go a little faster with the goat leading.

That lesson has stayed with me for a long time and is a fitting analogy for the state of education today.  National and state initiatives treat educators much like I treated the goat.  Federal and state officials want to be out in front pulling the obstinate education reform goat along their own preferred path.  What they don’t seem to understand is that the goat has its own idea of where it should go.

Everyone outside the walls of the American schoolhouse seems to have a million ideas on how to improve education.  Everyone is an expert because they have all been to school. What would happen if state, federal, and district officials allowed teachers and principals to lead the school reform efforts in America?  What would happen if they let the goat lead?

I imagine if teachers and principals were allowed more autonomy they would be able to address the specific needs of their students without the burden of implementing one-size-fits-all curricula and programs.  There would be less testing and more relationship building.  Teachers would spend more time teaching and using formative data to revise their instruction.  Instructional changes would happen in a timely manner and students would make greater progress.

The ESSA signed in December is a start in the right direction.  It gives states back more control over reform efforts, although the carrot and stick funding formulas still exist.  Maybe states will begin asking for the opinions of teachers and school leaders.  Maybe local districts will consider letting the goat lead.  That wouldn’t be a baaaaad thing, would it?

Turning a Cruise Ship

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on December 10, 2015.  According to the government’s webpage, the reauthorization of NCLB represents “good news for our nation’s schools.”

The bipartisan law proclaims to:

  • Advance equity by upholding critical protections for disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Require—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensure that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.
  • Help support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators.
  • Sustain and expand historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintain accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools.

Edweek recently noted that ESSA will continue to hold states accountable to the Education Department.  States will have to submit accountability plans starting in the 2017-18 school year.  States will be allowed to pick their own accountability goals, both long-term goals and smaller, interim goals. These goals must address proficiency on tests, English-language proficiency, and graduation rates.  Interestingly, states will no longer have to do teacher evaluation through student outcomes as they did under NCLB waivers.

What does all of this mean for teachers and school administrators?  It means that they go to work tomorrow and the next day knowing that change is coming, but also knowing that the implications of ESSA will take a while to be seen.  Fortunately, most of us won’t be sitting around waiting for direction.  We will continue to work passionately and persistently for all students.

Watching education reform lead to measurable change is like watching a cruise ship turn.  The average cruise ship speeds across the ocean at around 27 miles per hour.  At an average weight of over 150,000 gross tons, it can take a long time to turn one around.  It’s a maneuver that requires the collaboration and teamwork of many people.  From the captain on the bridge to the mechanics in the engine room, everyone needs to do their job.

ESSA holds the promise of great things for our children.  Much like ESEA in 1965, NCLB in 2002, and Obama’s Race to the Top initiatives, ESSA has the potential to make a difference for American students.  Whether that potential is realized depends on a “crew” of politicians and education officials working together to turn the education reform ship in the right direction.  As 2016 begins, let’s watch and remain hopeful that the journey and destination will be worth the wait.

Views on Literacy Instruction from the Field

There are many experts on literacy, but sometimes it’s nice to hear from people who live it and breathe it every day.  Members of my PLN were asked to share their views on what should be seen and heard in a literacy focused classroom.  Here is what they said:

“What do I want to see children doing during the literacy block? Reading and writing! As much as possible, children should be digging into books, discussing them with each other, and writing about those books. The teacher should be the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” In other words, teachers should slip in to offer guidance and support, then slip away to let the kids work.” -Beth Burke, principal, Shipley’s Choice Elementary

“We are focusing on “talk moves” here in PGCPS.  I love the concept of teachers explicitly teaching students through the use of anchor charts and modeling (out loud). They use turn and talk, think/pair/share, collaborative conversation protocols, pair and square talk, and an accountable talk protocol.  Students should be re-voicing, repeating, and reasoning.  All of these can take place throughout the day and across content areas!” -Walter Reap, principal, Edward M. Felegy Elementary

“I want to SEE students working on meaningful activities that correspond to the standards being taught during guided reading.  I want to HEAR students working cooperatively in some of those literacy groups to help create an engaging learning environment.  I want to HEAR students whisper reading and teachers listening to determine how to assist them become better readers.  I want to SEE teachers facilitating discussion through higher-level questioning and engaging students through purposeful talk.” -Jeff Haynie, principal, Solley Elementary

“I love to quote my reading teacher:  guided reading is learning to read, close reading is reading to learn.  It is important that teachers know the difference and the components and strategies for both.” -Donna Usewick, principal, Oakwood Elementary

“I want to SEE & HEAR children reading independently chosen books (after being provided with a lesson on how to pick a book that best fits their needs as a reader and a learner).  I want to see and hear children discussing books – sharing what they love about books and debating around books that they have shared, perhaps during guided reading lessons with the teacher.  I want to see and hear students applying whatever strategy or goal they were given based on a previous conference with the teacher.  Most importantly, children should be enjoying whatever interaction they are having with a text… whether it is reading, a response to what they’ve read, a project based on something they’ve read, or if they are applying a strategy they have learned – it should be engaging, to foster that love of reading and learning.” -Bonita Bradway, teacher, Tyler Heights Elementary

Great words of wisdom from an experienced group!  I would add that everything in a literacy block should be connected in big and small ways.  When students leave their guided reading group, they should be expected to complete independent work that will use the strategies and/or goals they are working on.  The work they complete independently should be collected and examined by the teacher to make instructional decisions at the whole-group and individual level.

In the spirit of visible learning, we must also remember to include our students in goal-setting.  Every student (some with a little teacher support) should be able to speak about what they are working on and trying to get better at.  Great literacy teachers never rest, they wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what they can do to help students make breakthroughs in reading.  Keep a notebook by your bed in case that describes you!

I am one lucky principal!

We’re coming up on one of my favorite holidays, Thanksgiving.  It’s a favorite of mine because it reminds me of the importance of reflecting on life and thanking those who make a difference.  Professionally, I am fortunate to work in a school that offers many reasons to be optimistic about teaching and learning.  Here are some of the things I am thankful for…

…kindergarten teachers who are patient, kind, and caring.  School culture begins in kindergarten.  Our kindergarten teachers are so good, they make children and parents feel welcome.  They assure parents that their children are in good hands.  Children never forget their first teacher, ours make sure that this is true by taking care of the whole child.

…first grade teachers who embrace the need to be the best literacy teachers they can be.  They are willing to collaborate, be observed, observe others, and attend professional development opportunities outside of the school day to hone their craft.  They laugh a lot and lean on each other when things get tough.  They demonstrate an undying enthusiasm for teaching.

…second grade teachers who work like a well-oiled machine.  They support each other in every way, personally and professionally.  They offer classrooms that are dynamic and active.  Our second grade teachers are independent thinkers who accept new ideas and immediately figure out how to integrate change in their classrooms.

…third grade teachers who always participate enthusiastically in school spirit events.  On any given day you can find them dressed as M & Ms, wearing their school spirit shirts, in Ravens gear, or dressed as green eggs and ham on Read Across America Day.  They look for opportunities to promote project-based learning with their students because they know it enhances engagement.

…fourth grade teachers who spend extra time every year planning for their overnight trip to the local outdoor education center.  Members of the fourth grade team have raised terrapins, organized the annual talent show, and volunteer whenever their colleagues need their help.  They foster relationships with students and families that last for years.

…fifth grade teachers who take it as a personal responsibility to prepare their students for middle school.  They promote STEM, a love for history, and bake cookies for the staff just at the right time.  Our fifth grade teachers organize the annual drown-proofing field trip and take their students to Philadelphia every year.  They give their students a final year of elementary school that they will never forget.

…cultural arts teachers who instill a love for music, art, movement, and literature.  This group reminds us that learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom.  They expose our students to new worlds that many would not see otherwise.

…special education teachers, speech pathologists, school psychologists, and occupational therapists who complete mounds of paperwork while remembering that the students they support are much more important.  They work long hours and are often under-appreciated for the work they do.  They advocate for the needs of their students and foster relationships with families in order to ensure that progress is made for all students.

…a school counselor who supports the social emotional learning of our students.  She supports families who need more than the school can provide by connecting them to social agencies and outside resources.

…resource teachers like Right Start Advisors who help new teachers succeed, ELL teachers who bridge the language gap for students, and support personnel who make sure technology does what it’s supposed to do, enhance learning.

…reading teachers who are consummate professionals.  They constantly work to support classroom teachers with the best and most effective strategies for teaching reading.

…teaching assistants who are flexible and willing to do whatever it takes to help students succeed.

…health room staff who take care of so many needs beyond just scratches and sniffles.

…custodians and cafeteria workers who quietly go about their work with little attention or recognition, yet make a difference to the entire school community.

…secretaries who serve parents, students, and staff members every day with a smile.  They are literally the face of the school for many visitors and their efforts tell parents that they are in a safe, caring place.

…our assistant principal who rarely sits still and supports positive behaviors throughout the building by developing a rapport with students, staff, and parents.

I am one lucky principal.  I have so much to be thankful for.  Teaching is tough.  I’m not sure that the average person understands all that goes on in an elementary school on any given day.  I do, and I hope my staff knows that their efforts do not go unnoticed.  I am proud to be their principal.

Managing for Success in Your Classroom

Opinions about the best classroom management practices are as varied as the teachers who use them.  Despite that variance, most agree that you have to have some sort of systematic approach to classroom expectations.  Starting the school year with a vague idea of what is acceptable behavior can make for a long and trying year.

Here are a few thoughts adapted from “The Dos and Don’ts of Classroom Management: Your 25 Best Tips” via Edutopia.  What others would you add?

Greet students at the door

When you greet students at the door it tells them that you are ready for them.  It starts their day right by reassuring them that their favorite person is in the building.

More rules doesn’t mean better behavior

Keep it simple.  Too many rules and expectations won’t be much different than none if the students can’t remember them.

Make your expectations clear from the start

Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  If your expectations aren’t clear, repeat them.  If that doesn’t work, try rewording them.

Keep calm

There will be “those” days.  If you can keep your head on your shoulders and exude calm, your students will reflect it back.  If you don’t feel calm, act like it anyway.

Don’t take it personally when students misbehave

Battles of will are rarely won by either side.  Students need consistent responses and consequences that are free of extreme emotions.  They crave consistency despite behaviors that might suggest otherwise.

Manage transitions

Have a plan in place for any and all transitions.  That doesn’t mean every move has to be choreographed, but be thoughtful and intentional when moving around the classroom and school.

Be transparent

Routines and management shouldn’t be magic tricks that students stand in awe of.  Students should be included in the development of expectations in their classroom.  At the very least, teachers should make an effort to explain and model the reasons for the “why” behind what they expect.

Ask others for help

When all else fails, go find a colleague.  Teaching is too hard as a solo act.  Seek out a veteran or a teacher who has a similar class and ask for advice.  It could be the start of a long professional relationship.

Here’s to a satisfying year!

Well, here we are on the brink of another school year.  Every year brings a new sense of excitement and enthusiasm.  The possibilities are endless in August and September.  The challenge for all of us is keeping the momentum going throughout the year.

The same amount of planning that goes into preparing for the school year needs to be applied evenly over the course of the year.  Many schools start out with fun and motivating themes, but it is easy to lose our focus and direction once the school year gets into full gear.

It’s important for school leaders to build checkpoints into the calendar to revisit and assess the progress of school-based initiatives.  Here are some questions that might be helpful for those seeking to build lasting change:

What are your focus areas for the year? Do they encompass all areas of instruction and your school’s culture?

How many initiatives do you have going?  Too many? Too few?

Is everyone clear on what those focus areas are?  Could they give an elevator speech that explains those areas in simple terms?

How will you support, monitor, and assess the success of your focus areas?

How will you sustain your initiatives over the course of the school year?

How can your community support your efforts?

If, like Stephen Covey suggests, we begin with the end in mind, what tangible results will our efforts yield in June?

What other questions would you suggest?  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section of this blog.  The excitement of August and September makes our profession special.  Sustaining that excitement over the course of a school year, while challenging, can make our school year satisfying.  Here’s to a satisfying year!

A “Teachers’ Principal”

I had the fortune of hearing Todd Whitaker speak this week.  Two years ago I attended his keynote at NAESP in Baltimore.  His message never gets old.  Having him at our district’s leadership conference this week was a great way to bring closure to the school year and provided motivation in planning for next year.

After listening to his words of wisdom, I am even more committed to being a “teachers’ principal.”  What is a teachers’ principal and why does it matter?  The term “players’ coach” gets used often in sports.  The term generally refers to a coach who has a good relationship with his/her players.  When making decisions about their team, players’ coaches give consideration to how their choices will impact the entire team.

The analogy connects well with teaching and leadership.  Principals who apply Todd Whitaker’s advice to “make decisions based on their best teachers” are subconsciously utilizing a teachers’ principal approach to leadership.  Being a teachers’ principal is not about delegating away responsibility.  A teachers’ principal recognizes that the whole is greater than its parts.  A teachers’ principal gives great thought to each and every initiative they foster.

Teaching is arguably the best and most challenging job there is.  Principals have an immense influence on the success of their teachers and students.  Principals who get to know the strengths and needs of their staff can tailor their professional development efforts to grow each and every teacher.

Below are four pillars for planning your school’s professional development efforts.  They are adapted from the Annenberg Foundation’s 2012 report, Designing with Teachers, Participatory Approaches to Professional Development in Education.  They illustrate how school leaders can operate from a teachers’ principal perspective.

  1. Participation, not indoctrination- everyone should have a role in the professional development efforts in a school.
  2. Exploration, not prescription- PD should be individualized for teachers and specific to their content areas.
  3. Contextualization, not abstraction- PD should be practical, meaningful, and immediately useful in the classroom.
  4. Iteration, not repetition- the choices that schools make related to PD should be examined regularly and adjusted based on their success and specifically their outcomes related to student achievement.

Principals who view themselves as a “teachers’ principal” find that adult learning flourishes in an environment that uses individual strengths to build overall teaching capacity.  Thanks to Todd Whitaker for reinvigorating my commitment to being a better principal, a teachers’ principal.  It’s still June, but I’m looking forward to August already.  Let’s go!

Summer Brings the Chance to Re-gain Your Balance

How will you spend your summer?

Summer offers us the chance to “sharpen the saw.”  Stephen Covey encouraged us to seek balance in our physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual lives.  When all four dimensions are in balance, the result is personal and professional synergy.  The sum of synergistic living is always greater than its parts.  When all four dimensions are balanced, everything falls into place.

The modern educator can easily be overwhelmed by the challenges of teaching and leading.  If we don’t take the time to renew ourselves on a personal and professional level, we won’t be effective in supporting the growth of our students.  The greatest gift of being an educator is that every school year starts anew.

What will you do to sharpen your saw this summer?  What books will you read for personal and professional pleasure? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment or posting your ideas on Twitter.  See below for a few summer reading ideas.

The Ultimate Summer Reading List for Teachers via Scholastic:

http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/ultimate-summer-reading-list-teachers

The best books about educational leadership via Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Best-Books-About-Educational-Leadership/lm/R1TJOMF4RU830V

Top Ten School Leadership Books via @AngelaMaiers:

http://www.angelamaiers.com/2010/06/top-10-school-leadership-books.html

Standing at the Back of the Elephant

The headline of Lyndsey Layton’s Washington Post article yesterday reads, “Most states lack expertise to improve worst schools.”  Layton notes in her article that the government’s 3 billion dollar investment hasn’t led to improved performance in our most challenged schools.  Apparently, the states “did not have the staff, technology and expertise to pull those schools out of the bottom rankings.”

The schools that were targeted for improvement had to choose one of four school reform strategies:  replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.

So, billions of dollars and several years after school districts received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, we are left wondering how to help our neediest schools.  Replacing the principal and staff doesn’t work.  Closing the school and enrolling students in a “better performing school” doesn’t work.  Reopening a school as a charter school doesn’t work.  Transforming a school through new instructional strategies doesn’t work, as if anyone really knows what that means.  Not only did these strategies not work, one third of the schools that received federal funds ended up with declining test scores.

The most we have learned from the federal government’s attempt at school reform is that they are no better than the states are at raising student achievement.  Let’s think of this enigma using a vivid analogy.  Student achievement in our most challenging public schools is the veritable “elephant in the room.”  For the past 20 years, or more, state and federal education officials have waited at the back of the elephant studiously examining what comes out.  Meanwhile, no one has bothered to think about what goes in the front.

How about if we spend the next twenty years focusing on what goes into the elephant?  Let’s start with well-trained, well-paid, teachers and administrators who are supported with resources and time for planning.  Maybe we can staff schools with so many teachers, teaching assistants, and support personnel that no child ever falls through the cracks.  It’s that simple.

American schools have tremendous potential when they are given the resources they need.  If we are not willing to put money and resources into our schools, then stop bothering to study what comes out of the backside of the elephant.  All you will get is…well, you know.

Social Media In Schools: Why bother?

I am excited to present at the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals conference later this month.  The focus of my session is on how social media can be used to enhance adult and student learning.  If you’re a social media regular, this is a message that you are more than likely familiar with.  However, we still have a large number of educators and leaders who are hesitant to capitalize on social media for the benefit of their schools.

I think this hesitancy comes from a lack of confidence with technology and worries about the potential negatives of social media.  If we are to harness the possibilities of social media, we are going to have to get over those feelings of inadequacy.  No one is truly a social media expert.  Technology and social media are changing and growing at such a rapid pace that no one can really keep up.

Motivation also seems to be a factor keeping educators from using social media.  Is it really worth the effort to use social media in our schools?  Will using social media improve academic achievement?  I think the answer to those questions can be found in a meta-analysis conducted by Waters, Marzano, and McNulty in 2003.  This study is often cited in journals and papers that examine the relationship between leadership behaviors and student achievement.

Waters, Marzano, and McNulty looked at 30 years of educational research and uncovered the leadership qualities that lead to improved academic achievement.  Here are a few of the qualities and behaviors they identified:

  • A willingness to actively engage the status quo
  • Quality contact and interactions with teachers and students
  • Establishment of clear goals while keeping those goals in the forefront of the school’s attention
  • Fostering of shared beliefs and a sense of community

Ultimately, school leaders are responsible for raising student achievement.  When developing school improvement plans, teachers and principals must ask whether their initiatives will lead to improved student performance.  Each school must be confident in choosing what to include and what to exclude from their plans.  Will the four behaviors above lead to improved student achievement?  The research suggests so.

Can these behaviors be enhanced by using social media?  If I am a school leader who capitalizes on social media, can I better engage the status quo?  Will social media improve my interactions with teachers, students, and parents?  Would social media be an effective way to keep my school’s goals in the forefront of everyone’s attention?  Can social media help me foster shared beliefs and a sense of community cooperation?

Educators tend to have strong feelings about where their priorities should be spent.  What if the answer to each question above is yes?  School leaders owe their students, teachers, and parents the opportunity to at least explore the potential of social media.  Perhaps George Couros said it best in his blog, The Principal of Change:

“There can no longer be an “opt out” clause when dealing with technology in our schools, especially from our administrators. We need to prepare our kids to live in this world now and in the future. Change may feel hard, but it is part of learning.  We expect it from our kids, we need to expect it from ourselves.  This is not optional anymore.”