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.”

Are you a resilient educator?

Are you a resilient educator?  How do you respond when things don’t go your way?  This week was challenging for me.  I’ll spare the specifics, but I’m finishing the day wondering where things went wrong this week.  The most alarming part of having a bad day or week is the feeling of losing control.  How can you get that control back?  Here are a few suggestions that might help.  I’m going to try and take my own advice.

Put Your Day or Week in Context

Everyone has their moments.  Was this day or week an anomaly?  Unless you’ve started a new pattern of behavior, next week will be better.  It has to be.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

If you can still laugh at yourself, you’ll be okay.  Humor doesn’t fix everything, but it signals the start of turning your bad mood around.

Re-center Yourself.

Take some time to reflect on what went wrong and why, but don’t get stuck there.  Make a conscious decision to get back on track.  Think of a few strategies that you can use next week to steady the ship.

Face the Music

If your week went wrong due to relationship issues, decide if you need to directly address someone.  Nothing keeps your stomach turning more than unresolved conflict.  Pick the right moment and have a heart-to-heart with those who are connected to your stress.

Get Some Me Time

Do something for yourself.  Go shopping, go for a walk, a run, a bike ride, or just go somewhere!  Time alone helps clear your thinking.  If you’re comfortable being alone with your thoughts you will always have a way to cope with stress.

Get Back on the Horse

Start the new week believing in a fresh start.  Avoidance is a poor strategy for anyone who wants to have a better day.  Hold your head up, smile, and say something positive to the first few people you see.  You’d be surprised how quickly you can build the momentum you need to have a great week!

Educators and school leaders can and should model resilience.  If we want students to respond appropriately to stress, we should show them how.  We don’t have to discuss every detail of our personal lives, but sharing anecdotes that illustrate the times we have overcome stress can help students develop their own strategies.  It’s okay to show your humanity.  Your students will be all the better for it.

Fostering the Standards for Mathematical Practice

Since the adoption of the Common Core Standards, many states have been working to foster math instruction that incorporates the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  These standards are viewed as the key practices that need to be in place in every math classroom, every day:

1.  Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

2.  Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

3.  Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

4.  Model with mathematics.

5.  Use appropriate tools strategically.

6.  Attend to precision.

7.  Look for and make use of structure.

8.  Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

The challenge for school leaders and teachers is understanding what these practices look and sound like in the classroom.  What do we have to do in order to foster the Standards for Mathematical Practice?  The following suggestions are gleaned from several sources (see links below) and should encourage a conversation around what effective math instruction looks like:

-Students should be talking with and interacting with each other every day.

-Math should be about real life problems, not isolated skills.

-Students need support and practice in learning how to communicate mathematical ideas.

-Manipulatives and technology should be used when they enhance understanding.

-Assessments should reflect the way math is being taught.

-Strategies to promote the practices should include giving students the answer to questions and asking them to decide what the question is; having students make up problems that meet some pre-determined criteria; and posing “What if?” questions about what might happen if a change is made to the quantity or any other aspect of a given problem.

-Students will need consistent strategies for reading problems and determining what the question is asking.

Practice number one might be our biggest challenge.  How do we get students to persevere in math?  Teachers can support perseverance through modeling and teacher talk.  A combination of practice, scaffolding, and encouragement can build a foundation for the resilience our students will need to meet success in math.

Standards for Mathematical Practice

http://www.corestandards.org/Math/Practice/

What Should I Look for in a Math Classroom?

http://www.utdanacenter.org/mathtoolkit/support/look.php

Implementing the Common Core Mathematical Practices

http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol8/805-parker.aspx

Maryland Governor Seeking Charter School Revisions

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is proposing significant changes to state charter school laws.  Yesterday, a hearing on House Bill 486 was held in Annapolis.  While the political rhetoric associated with the charter school movement is complex, it should be clear that conservatives and liberals stand on both sides of the issue.  Charter schools are supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

In general, advocates of charter schools want to encourage innovative teaching and creative approaches to reaching underserved students.  That is a laudable goal and one that is certainly shared by teachers, school leaders, and communities across America.  The only problem with that logic is that charter schools are not outperforming their counterparts.  A 2010 report by the Education Law Center notes that:

“Research on charter schools paints a mixed picture.  A number of recent national studies have reached the same conclusion:  charter schools do not, on average, show greater levels of student achievement, typically measured by standardized test scores, than public schools, and may even perform worse.”

For additional information from the report, see:

http://www.educationjustice.org/newsletters/nlej_iss21_art5_detail_CharterSchoolAchievement.htm

Maryland House Bill 486 includes language that illustrates the problematic thinking connected with those who favor charter schools.  The proposal provides for a lottery system that gives preference to students living in poverty, in need of special education services, with limited English proficiency, and those who are homeless.  At first glance, that sounds like a great way to improve learning opportunities for our students who are most in need.  However, the bill provides charter schools with the freedom to circumvent state teacher certification requirements, which ensures that the students who need the most qualified teachers won’t get them.  Lotteries are also inherently corruptible and many districts across the country have questioned whether they are being monitored and administered ethically.

Maryland’s bill also provides public construction money to charter schools.  This will create competition within school districts that, in some cases, could mean choosing charter school capital improvements over public school needs, a veritable “Sophie’s Choice” for local school boards.  Public construction money is just one of the complications that charter schools bring to local boards.  Charter schools create the need for additional district personnel and time to oversee them and check for compliance.  That takes time and money away from an already shallow pool of funds

The irony of the current charter bill proposal in Maryland is that it ignores how underfunded schools already are.  If Maryland’s public schools were funded at anything near the appropriate level, then maybe exploring charter schools would be worthwhile.  The backlog of capital improvement projects in Maryland’s school districts and the per-pupil spending inequities across the state suggest that the time for charter schools is yet to come.

To learn more about House Bill 486, visit the link below:

http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?pid=billpage&stab=01&id=hb0486&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS

An edited version of this post appeared in the Baltimore Sun’s Readers Respond section on March 3, 2015, all rights reserved.

http://bsun.md/1ARjPNl

What does a literacy-rich classroom look like?

Early literacy efforts are, needless to say, an ongoing concern for school districts across the US and the world.  The pendulum on what methodology is best has swung in enough directions to make the average teacher dizzy.  What constitutes good reading instruction?

The International Reading Association adopted standards in 2005 that are research-based and worth revisiting.  The IRA recommends that effective early childhood educators:

  • Recognize the importance of language and literacy experiences relative to achievement
  • Integrate early literacy experiences into the curriculum
  • Connect physical, emotional, and social goals in the language and literacy curriculum
  • Develop appropriate language and literacy standards
  • Create a language and literacy program that is culturally competent
  • Participate in professional development opportunities to stay up-to-date on evidence-based practice

For more info, see the IRA link below:

http://www.reading.org/Libraries/position-statements-and-resolutions/ps1066_preschool.pdf

The question we must continually ask ourselves is, “What do those standards look like in the primary grades?”  What would an observer “see” in the classroom that demonstrates those standards?  The third bullet above is a poignant reminder that early literacy skills are best honed in a classroom that capitalizes on the social, emotional, and physical connections to learning.  Yes, strong literacy skills are a must for every teacher, but if they are unable to connect with students on a personal level, their success will be limited.

The other theme running through the IRA’s recommendations is that language and literacy are complementary skills.  Students in the primary grades must be exposed to a language-rich environment.  Reading skills will grow much quicker and deeper in a dynamic classroom that promotes discussion, movement, play, theater, and student autonomy.  A teacher who structures the classroom for student-choice will develop the independence in students that they need to succeed in life.

What do you expect to see in the primary grades when it comes to reading?  What indicators tell you that a classroom is literacy rich?  Join #mdeschat this Thursday 8PM ET and share, or add a comment below!

3 Tips for Building Teacher Leadership

Good schools have good leadership.  Great schools have great teacher leadership.  We can all think back to the day when the single heroic leader model was the norm.  This was the era of the authoritarian principal who ruled with a firm hand.  They were the only “expert” in the building and they used their influence in every aspect of management.  Some of those dinosaurs remain, but much like the dinosaurs, they are headed for extinction.

The postmodern principal recognizes that schools have no chance of success unless leadership is a shared commodity.  The job is just too big.  The need to develop teachers as leaders is a generally accepted premise in most school districts.  The challenge, of course, is how to do it.  How can school systems and individual schools harness the skills of their teachers to improve instruction and raise student achievement?

Here are three thoughts that school leaders may want to consider when developing teacher leaders:

Include Everyone

School leaders who select the teacher leaders in their building automatically limit the potential for success.  Everyone can lead in some way.  If teachers aren’t considered part of the leadership team, then they are unlikely to be a part of a school’s success.  Principals who are perceived as having “their people” create a climate of acrimony that leaves many on the outside looking in.  Leadership opportunities must be given to everyone.

Identify and Capitalize on Strengths

We expect teachers to know the strengths and challenges of their students.  School leaders must do the same with their teachers.  This can be done formally (surveys) or informally (conversations/observations).  Either way, school leaders can capitalize on that knowledge when developing their school improvement plans.  Every teacher should be offered and encouraged to have their moment to shine.

Trust

School leaders must take a leap of faith and trust teachers.  Sometimes, that trust must be given before it is earned.  Most principals want control over the sharing of information in their buildings.  They want to make sure that instruction is consistent and focused.  Trusting teachers and their expertise will actually enhance quality instruction.  Teachers want to be included in the important decisions related to instruction.  When school leaders exclude teachers, they eliminate the potential for innovation.  Innovative teaching comes from a school climate that fosters risk-taking.  If principals are willing to trust their teachers, the ideas will come pouring out.

Building teacher leadership is one way that school leaders may be able to ensure long-term success.  School leaders come and go.  Turnover and change are inevitable.  When leadership is shared, the transition to new leadership is much smoother.  We owe it to our students and their families to utilize the knowledge of our teachers.  Let’s replace those dinosaurs with a new generation of resilient and inclusive leaders.