Creating a culture of numeracy

The following appears in the May/June edition of Principal magazine, all rights reserved:

Schools that create positive perceptions about math instruction can boost performance, too.
By Kim VerMerris and Christopher Wooleyhand
Principal, May/June 2019. Volume 98, Number 5.

American schools struggle to provide effective, impactful math instruction, and the performance of students on several indicators of math progress suggests we have much work to do. In an October 2018 Education Week article, Catherine Gewertz noted that ACT scores in math have reached a 20-year low. SAT scores in math were stagnant over that same period.

Interestingly, the National Center for Education Statistics found that elementary school students demonstrated a gradual improvement in math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2013, with scores for 9-year-olds increasing since 1973. Even so, the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment ranked American students 39th in the world in math achievement.

Elementary schools aren’t waiting for state and federal education officials to step in, though; they are working diligently to deliver quality math instruction themselves. Some have started with a cultural change—fostering a positive math culture in elementary schools to have a significant impact on the success of teachers and students. Such change requires collaboration, but schools that work to develop consistent expectations and targeted strategies are helping students become confident and competent critical thinkers.

Math Specialists Wanted

Federal and state education officials can help by providing school systems with the resources and tools necessary to address this growing concern. What might happen if schools were provided resources in math commensurate with those provided for reading? When did we decide that numeracy should take a back seat to literacy?

Organizations such as the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) have been advocating on behalf of math specialists in elementary schools for more than 40 years, and more school districts should have adopted their recommendations by now.

NCSM continues to advocate for math leadership in all elementary schools. As the publisher of several position papers, they note that math specialists have a positive influence on teachers and students. They believe that elementary math specialists can have an incredible impact on the effectiveness of others, and that they are crucial to developing high-quality math programs.

Francis “Skip” Fennell, professor emeritus at McDaniel College, said in a 2011 NCSM Journal article that the simple (and yes, costly) step of installing state-certified math teachers in elementary schools would go a long way toward improved math performance. The director of the Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project and past president of AMTE and NCTM, he suggests the following practices to assist in building a math culture:

  • Find creative ways to attain, use, and sustain math resource/specialist/coach support;
  • Identify teachers in the building who are passionate about math to build instructional capacity;
  • Use the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice as a foundation for engaging all students in the mathematics they are learning;
  • Display math-themed bulletin boards, visuals, and student products to promote student interest;
  • Regularly communicate with parents to share your school’s math vision;
  • Connect mathematics learning to contexts that make the subject come alive (and underline that yes, it’s a fun subject!);
  • Promote games and schoolwide math challenges to build mathematics excitement; and
  • Select grade-level math reps who meet regularly to discuss math instruction and constantly monitor and promote the school’s math culture.

Consistency Builds Culture

The work related to promoting a positive math culture is ongoing. School leaders need to be relentless and consistent in their efforts. Schools that consistently focus their efforts on the following practices might find that as their math culture grows, so do the confidence and performance of their staff and students. Here’s how:

Provide administrative support. School leaders must serve as the catalysts in the growth of a positive math culture. For instructional change to occur, math must be a focus area of the school improvement plan. Math goals in your school improvement plan should include realistic steps to meet the needs of your students, create accountability in analyzing data, and encourage teachers to be open to changes in instructional practices. Teachers need opportunities to learn together and plan together. Collaborative planning, vertical teaming, and professional development should be aligned with the improvement plan.

Foster collaborative planning. As leaders create a collaborative planning schedule for the year, they can schedule teachers’ meetings around math instruction. It is important for administrators to attend these meetings to promote the value and importance of consistent math planning. Consider inviting outside math resource teachers or building staff to support grade-level teams.

Develop meeting agendas with teachers and share them with grade-level teams a week ahead of time to allow everyone to prepare. Sessions should include time to celebrate and share classroom successes; everyone will benefit from the opportunity to show off what they’re proud of and acknowledge peers’ contributions. Teachers must be encouraged to share best practices related to the standards on which they are focusing.

Each planning session should include time for teachers to complete math problems themselves. “Doing the math” will help them focus on finding and using effective strategies to teach the standards, and it will create a culture that values job-embedded professional development. When cooperation and modeling strategies are used consistently during planning, they flow over into the classroom.

Offer vertical teaming opportunities. Teachers rarely have an opportunity to talk with peers from other grade levels, much less share strategies and discuss the progression and coherence of standards across grade levels. Having teachers work on schoolwide math goals with teachers in every grade helps build a collegial atmosphere in which teachers can grow by learning from their peers. Vertical team meetings will help teachers learn from each other through classroom visits and engaging, hands-on learning experiences. Vertical team meetings also allow schools to showcase teachers who are implementing the best instructional practices. Through vertical teaming, teachers get a feel for what instruction looks like throughout the building.

Elementary schools also benefit by teaming with the middle schools their students feed into, encouraging transitions with less skill regression. Vertical meetings are great opportunities to highlight in-house resources, including teachers who are strong in math or have a passion for the subject. Most importantly, vertical meetings help grow a positive and productive math culture.

Establish a math growth mindset. Everyone is a mathematician; we all have the capability to learn math strategies and communicate math thinking. Creating a school in which teachers and students persevere and use mistakes as learning opportunities builds a growth mindset that discourages teachers from saying “I’m no good at math” or accepting the same belief from students. A growth mindset will help staff and students see struggle as a path to new learning.

Involve the community. Parents sometimes struggle to understand Common Core standards and the strategies taught in school, and they want resources and support to assist their children with math. Regular communication can help parents understand the dialogue around what their children are learning. Schools can provide parents with a monthly newsletter that includes upcoming math concepts, vocabulary, and games or practice activities.

To involve them in math learning skills and strategies, invite parents to math events where they can interact with teachers and other parents. Focus the events on the major content standards taught within each grade level to help parents walk away with a sense of accomplishment and confidence as well as the tools they need to support their child.

Make math visible. A positive math culture should be evident throughout the school. Display student work to promote the importance of math in the building. Post bulletin boards, displays, and motivational signage everywhere to emphasize the Standards for Mathematical Practice and growth mindset. Offer students afterschool clubs that focus on math, centered on the 24 Game, Bedtime Math Crazy 8s, or robotics. STEM/STEAM programs are a great way to promote an integrated approach with math and other subject areas.

For years, schools have embraced the value of promoting a literacy-rich culture, and students have benefited from state and local efforts to improve reading instruction and performance. We can do the same for math. What could happen if school districts put their time, resources, and professional development efforts toward math practices that lead to proficiency? Schools that decide to promote a positive math culture might find that their students are better prepared for the future—and that would be good for everyone.

Kim VerMerris is assistant principal at Pershing Hill Elementary School in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Christopher Wooleyhand is principal of Pershing Hill Elementary.

Six Steps to Engage Students

One of the outcomes of the growth mindset movement is a dedicated focus on student engagement.  Schools are recognizing that teaching the standards requires the active participation of students.  This is an exciting and refreshing movement away from more traditional teaching methods.  Schools should feel unfettered when planning for instruction that combines both the rigor of higher standards with a pedagogy that excites young learners.

In his article, Engage Kids With Seven Times the Effect, Todd Finley identified the benefits of engagement for students.  He noted that they:

  • experience improved academic achievement and satisfaction
  • are more likely to persist through academic struggles
  • earn higher standardized test scores
  • have better social skills
  • are less likely to drop out of school

Teachers naturally want their students to be engaged in the instruction they provide.  They want their students to be absorbed in the learning process because their instincts tell them it supports long-term understanding.  The “how” of engagement can be challenging, even for experienced teachers.  Planning for active student engagement requires meticulous preparation as well as a willingness to change direction when the moment calls for it.  Most of all, it requires that teachers truly know each student.

Teachers who know the strengths and needs of their students use that knowledge to raise their success.  They put their students in learning situations where the rewards are high and the risk of failure is low.  They don’t try to manipulate the end-result, but they narrow the number of potential outcomes.

Here are six suggestions for how schools can increase student engagement:

  1. Develop an “engagement” culture

Like most significant initiatives, change starts with a school’s culture.  If you want to focus on student engagement then you’ll have to develop a collaborative vision with teachers and staff that celebrates the benefits of engaging instruction.  The collaborative approach lends itself to enduring change.  You don’t have to build consensus or “buy-in,” you need a commitment among the staff to grow strong instructional practices around the standards you are teaching.

  1. Have them teach each other.

See how high the level of engagement goes when students are told that they will be teaching a new concept to their classmates.  It’s not about the fear factor, but students certainly become more engaged in classrooms that include opportunities for them to teach each other.  Of course, it should be genuine, not contrived.  While this approach may take more time, it leads to greater retention of the material and deeper understanding of the concepts.  Students often listen with a greater focus when their peers speak.

  1. Assign authentic tasks with meaningful final projects.

Students are quickly motivated when their learning is related to topics they are passionate about.  In turn, passionate teachers can easily motivate their students by selecting lessons that focus on real-life problems and issues.  The final projects associated with problem-based learning should be meaningful.  The simplest question teachers should ask before determining the focus of an investigation is, “Who will we share what we’ve learned with and how will we do it?”  Great teachers share their passion for learning and pass it on to their students.

  1. Promote working together.

While it may be hard to know what careers we are preparing students for, we can assume that collaboration will be a key skill for their success.  Students need training in how to work with others.  It is not a natural talent.  Consistent structures and practices lead to collaboration that flows and seems natural.  Teachers can begin with highly controlled practices and, as students assume more independence, they can exercise a gradual release of responsibility.  Most importantly, teachers should expect some failure as they foster collaboration.  Through that failure, they will build student resilience and a deeper understanding of how the whole is often greater than its parts.

  1. Incorporate technology.

The modern teacher has many choices when it comes to using technology as a teaching tool.  Teachers must become comfortable with learning about technology alongside their students.  Blogging, file sharing, digital media, digital citizenship, project-based learning, Genius Hour, the maker movement, curation and many more terms have made their way into the current educational lexicon.  Technology allows schools to connect their students with others across the globe.  Small school districts can provide opportunities that their students might not otherwise have.  Start investigating the newest technology.  If you don’t, you can bet your students will.

6. Get students moving.

Students should be sitting as little as possible during the school day.  If your students aren’t moving every fifteen minutes, they probably aren’t learning as much as you want them to.  Brain-based research has clearly linked the role of movement in learning.  Where does the blood pool when you’re sitting for long stretches of time?  You can bet it’s not in the brain.  Movement breaks and physical activity re-awaken the brain’s synapses and make students available for new learning.

Once engagement becomes part of a school’s culture, it needs nurturing to sustain its benefits.  School principals can develop look-fors based on the specific needs of their students and staff.  The challenge for observers is to distinguish between student activity and student engagement.  Robert Marzano is recognized as an expert in student engagement.  His book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, is a good starting point for school leaders seeking to foster student engagement.  Marzano offers several tips that provide a good foundation for assessing engagement in schools.  Based on his tips, school principals should look for evidence of:

  • the quality of relationships in the classroom
  • a variety of teaching methods being utilized
  • the level and source of questions asked (teacher and student generated)
  • student choice
  • acceptance (teacher to student; student to student)
  • effective pacing
  • the use of wait time
  • positive and respectful communication (verbal and non-verbal

While this is not an exhaustive list, it’s a good starting point for schools focused on improving student engagement.  If one of the tenets of ESSA is to personalize learning for students, then targeting student engagement may be the vehicle to success.  By maintaining high expectations for all students and offering rigorous, engaging instruction, we can at least get children more excited about coming to school.  That’s a good start!

This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Principal magazine.  All rights reserved.

Teamwork Gets Things Done!

In many school districts, students either have returned, or will be returning soon.  It’s an exciting time of the year filled with anticipation.  While summer fun is winding down, students, teachers, and parents are looking forward to the new school year.  Teamwork plays an important role in the success of schools.  The challenges of teaching and learning are far too great to be approached at the individual level alone.  What can schools do to build great teams?  What can they do to make sure that our schools are models of collaboration? Let’s hear from a few strong school leaders who understand the magic that happens when schools foster teamwork.

As I think about the importance of building great teams in elementary schools, this quote by Stephen Covey comes to mind, “Without trust we don’t truly collaborate, we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.” I believe that teamwork is at the heart of the important work we do in schools, because the work is so critical it cannot possibly be done in isolation. My belief is to model the importance of teamwork with teachers through various structures, such as my leadership team and school improvement team. I put relationships at the forefront of all the work that happens and trust develops over time between all staff members. If teachers can see the results of a highly effective leadership team and school improvement team, they will believe in the power of collaborative planning for instruction and will begin to see the academic benefit in their students’ scores. Modeling, guiding, setting expectations, and asking reflective questions are critical in the beginning stages of building teams that truly know how to collaborate. In the words of Roland Barth, “The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.” I believe this at my core, and it is my hope that every administrator will believe this also.

Lisa Koennel/@LKoennel/ Principal, Richard Henry Lee Elementary


Building great teams within an elementary school is essential to creating a student-focused positive culture. It’s paramount to develop teacher leadership through intentional empowerment as a means to grow and develop high functioning teams. When you have teacher leaders who are willing to be selfless, committed, positive, and sacrifice for the good of the team, you have the makings of a great team. It is essential to build leadership and empower from within in order to facilitate the development and performance of school-based teams. Once you’ve created leadership within each team, the functionality of the team is enhanced from within. We develop teacher leaders through empowerment and strategic placement in positions where their talents are maximized and their ability to lead has the greatest impact on their team, and thus student achievement.

Chris Gordon/@Gordon_ChrisG/Principal, Point Pleasant Elementary


Beginning with the end in mind is so important. That “end” for different people on the team involves helping everyone attain a level of success, a level of leadership or embarking on and empowering others for the roles in which they aspire. All teams work towards both long and short term goals while operating within a shared vision and meeting established goals. Both are achieved by working collectively towards the attainment of these goals while cycling through the improvement process. On a personal level, it involves that collaborative work while fostering a sense of family. Building and maintaining the team includes open communication, accountability with commitment, a positive and optimistic attitude, trust and a level of reflective adaptability. I would never ask anyone to do something I am not willing to do or learn myself; walk the talk in a way that is inspiring to others.

Denise Faidley @DeniseFaidley/Assistant Principal, Glendale Elementary


Teams, for me, need to be diverse.  I need different perspectives and different personalities on the team.  I need to person that is creative-minded who comes up with an awesome plan, but I also need to person that brings that plan to life by looking at it logistically.  I need someone that is data-minded, paired up with the person who is going have resources and ideas of what to do with that data.  As we know, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and they need to be able to build on each other.  I need a team that maintains positivity, even during the hardest of times.  They need to be cheerleaders for each other and most importantly, for the kids.  I make this happen by making intentional decisions about who to place together and when I interview, I include the team members so we can collaboratively find teammates that work together well.

Cheryl Cox @CoxCherylcox628/Principal, Waugh Chapel Elementary/www.fridayfinishline.wordpress.com


Team building is always a hot topic in the business world and it is certainly as buzzed about in the field of education. Andrew Carnegie famously stated, “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Isn’t that what every leader desires; to achieve uncommon, amazing results! We are after all in the business of education youth, a most important profession.

As far as building a team, I don’t know if there is an exact formula. However, I know that I have always focused on modeling the characteristics and qualities of a positive team member. I attentively listen to the concerns, ideas, and opinions of others. I demonstrate a willingness to assist in any way possible. That could mean sweeping the floor in the cafeteria or teaching a small group of students. I let others know that their efforts, dedication, and hard work are valued and appreciated. I encourage the team when they are down. I am honest with my team in an effort to grow them individually and the team. I acknowledge, appreciate and utilize the individual talents of each team member.  In summary, I try to lead with kindness. I believe that when individuals know you care and are willing to go all in, team building is easier. Kindness and consideration builds trust and trust leads to teams working together towards a common vision.

Tamara Kelly @tamjkell/ Principal, Belle Grove Elementary


To me, building strong teams means giving teachers opportunities to have leadership roles along with providing guidance and expectations for what needs to be done. Having your pulse on what is happening while trying not to micromanage is a delicate balance. If folks feel micromanaged my thought is that you will have less buy in, if any at all. Also putting good (and consistent) structures in place will help make teams more effective. One last thought is creating an environment where reflection with thoughtful/non-judgmental questions are used to promote growth in your team members is key. This will also help build stronger teams.

In my eyes, leadership is about getting the most out of the people you are leading with the goal in mind to positively impact student achievement. If that is the case, they must have opportunities to take on these roles. The job has become increasingly complex, and we as principals can’t do it all. You must have people around you that believe in what they are doing, and taking on these roles to be active participants in effective structures. This will support your overall goal of enhanced student achievement.

Jason Otte @fishingfan24/Principal, Windsor Farm Elementary


Thanks to Lisa, Chris, Denise, Cheryl, Tamara, and Jason for sharing their sage advice.  Our students deserve schools that model teamwork and collaboration.  Most of us agree that these are skills that will make our students successful in the 21st century.  Content knowledge and strong communication skills are important, but our children will need to grasp the importance of relying on others and working together for the good of the team.  When school leaders and teachers model those skills, students learn to appreciate their value.  Best wishes on a great school year!

Teacher Leadership Matters

Teacher leadership was the discussion topic for #mdeschat the other night.  Many great insights were shared.  Here are a few:

“A leader helps to create more leaders and inspires. That is exactly what I want to do as a teacher.” -Michael Donnelly @mrdonnelly3

“In the collaborative culture that we build, shared leadership is needed, we can’t do it alone!” –Cheryl Cox @CoxCherylcox628

“Teaching is so complex and involves so many variables; empowering critical thinking about what matters is key.” –Walter Reap @WalterReap

“In education, change is constant. By empowering teachers as leaders, they can implement systemic goals in a way that is meaningful to students.” –Dana Wiles @nfesgr2

“Teacher leaders affect student achievement exponentially by raising the expectations among colleagues.” –Elizabeth Curley @Curley_Liz

“Opportunities to collaborate with county resource staff allows teacher leaders to enjoy learning and sharing while inspiring others.” –Vanessa Gilbert @vanlynn75

“Shared leadership allows the school to capitalize on the different talents each member of the team brings to the community.” –Zipporah Miller @zipmiller

“Teachers, when empowered, learn a lot from each other.” –Todd Stanzione @toddstanzione

“Benefits of teacher leadership: teacher retention, student achievement, positive school culture, decreased isolation, enhanced collaboration.” –Andrea Zamora @AACPS_Zamora

“Leadership is about one’s vision of him/herself. Not about title or position, it is about one’s actions.” –Jill Snell @Jill_Snell81

“To grow, teachers need to step out of the classroom and see varying perspectives; grow from the strength of others and stretch their thinking.” –Stephanie Straw @ststoney16

“Teacher leaders are innovative, have high expectations for all, and are masterful at cultivating relationships to grow students.” –Denise Faidley @DeniseFaidley

“If the teacher is a facilitator and leader, she/he will guide students to discover and build their learning by solving real life problems.” –Evylyn Quinones @evyabel

Such awesome insight from a great PLN!  If others share these views on teacher leadership our children are in good hands!

I’ll take it as a compliment!

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Our school recently held a parent night for our Spanish speaking families.  I stood at the front of the school opening the door and greeting families as they arrived.  The turn-out was nice and included many of our students.  After some refreshments, one of our first grade teachers took the students to her classroom for some fun activities while our EL teacher and community liaison worked with the parents.

The parents participated in warm-up games to help them get to know each other.  While we sometimes see our Spanish families as one group, they often represent many different countries, backgrounds, and cultures.  Even so, the Spanish language is what connects them.  As educators, we need to find opportunities to get our English learners and their families together.

The parents who attended our event were enthusiastic and excited to be included in their child’s school.  You could tell that they appreciated having an interpreter there to listen to and ask questions of.  They also shared how much they appreciated our efforts and how much their children love their school.

When I welcomed the parents to our event, I told them how important it is to our staff that they feel connected to the school.  Their language should never be a barrier to helping their children succeed.  We should be breaking down walls, not building them.  I also stressed how important it is that they keep speaking Spanish to their children.  Spanish families don’t have to give up their culture or language when they come to America.

Toward the end of the night, the parents had a chance to share and ask questions.  One of the parents stood up and with a wry smile said, referring to me, “I thought he was a security guard because he is always outside greeting people.”  This brought raucous laughter from the whole group and illustrated the cultural differences in the parents’ educational experience in their home countries.  Many of them had never had the opportunity to interact with a “director” (principal).

At first I thought that being identified as a “guardia de seguridad” by our EL parents might be an indication that I need to do a little PR work with them.  The more I thought, however, the more I realized it was a compliment.  If they see me as someone who is protecting the school, that’s a good thing.

That night was one of those special times when you realize that what you do matters.  It was satisfying to know that our Spanish speaking families appreciate the efforts of our staff.  They value their families and love their school because their children are happy.  They want to be involved, but don’t always know how.  They trust in their school and yes, they sometimes see their principal as a security guard.  I’m okay with that.  I’ll take it as a compliment.

Who’s got it better than us?

John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens and his brother, Jim Harbaugh, coach at the University of Michigan, have often used the quote above to motivate their players.  The quote was passed down to them by their father Jack, a life-long college football coach.  The words are a simple reminder to appreciate the best things in life.  They encourage us to be grateful for all that we have.

After 30 years in education, there is still nothing more exciting to me than the start of a new school year.  The sense of renewal and professional rebirth is palpable.  New teachers arrived in our building today to prepare for the students who will be here in two weeks.  They are so excited and energetic.  Their passion is contagious.  Our veteran teachers have been trickling in, too.  While tempered with wisdom and experience, their enthusiasm is equally strong.

The school year is long.  Challenges can come from every direction, but in August everything is possible.  New teachers can launch fulfilling, long-lasting careers.  Veteran teachers can re-invent themselves.  In education, we get to start anew every year.  This phenomenon seems unique to the field of education.  How many careers have renewal built into their calendars? Who’s got it better than us?

Before we launch into the new school year, let’s take a moment to reflect on how special our field is.  We get to play a small part in the lives of children.  That small part can lead to great things.  We should never take for granted just how far our reach goes.  What we do matters and it matters every day.  What tremendous opportunities we will have this year!  The staff is preparing.  The students are coming. Who’s got it better than us?

 

 

The Strength of Character Education

This article, co-authored with Donna Usewick, appears in the Jan/Feb edition of Principal magazine, all rights reserved.

The relationship between character and learning is supported through years of educational research. Benefits include improved problem-solving skills, academic achievement, and school behavior. While there are numerous character education programs that school leaders may select for their schools, here are five foundational principles that should be in place before adopting character education as a whole-school model.

  1. Strong Leadership. Schools seeking to adopt character education practices need principals who are willing to fully invest themselves in the process. Principals can model their support for the initiative by holding schoolwide assemblies as well as through positive interactions with students. Best practice supports establishing a separate committee that is solely dedicated to character education. The principal should be an integral member of character education initiatives, but should not necessarily be the primary leader. Character education should be a shared commitment and staff need to have input and decision-making powers.
  2. Strong Principles. Schools that are committed to capitalizing on the benefits of character education can begin by selecting a few key principles to focus on. The principles should be chosen based on the needs of the school through the use of academic/behavioral data, parent/staff surveys, and most certainly the current school improvement plan. Once a school has firmly established a few practices, others can be added as needed.To further illustrate, if a school decides to focus on creating a caring community, it will need input from the staff regarding what a caring community looks and sounds like. They may brainstorm ideas, such as teachers greeting all students at the classroom door, providing mentors for needy students, a student buddy system pairing younger students with older ones, holding a new student orientation, and ensuring that the basic needs (materials, clothing etc.) of all students are met.
  3. Strong Character Traits. Determining the key traits to focus on as a school—patience, perseverance, kindness, and confidence, for example—is next step in building a foundation for character education. Schools can purchase curricula that contain pre-selected traits with guidelines on how to present them to students, or they can develop their own program to meet their needs. Focusing on one trait per month is a good practice. Schools can decide how to introduce and reinforce these traits, so that they become meaningful and purposeful for each student.
  4. Strong Connections to the Community. The process of integrating character education is not limited to the schoolhouse. Many of the initiatives that a school may want to implement require giving back to the outside community or the development of a service learning component. Such service could include food drives or accepting donations for a local animal shelter. Every community is different, so needs will vary. Schools need to become familiar with their surroundings and align their charitable work with one of their chosen character traits.
  5. Strong Evaluation. Once a school has made the commitment to infuse character education, it must evaluate the effort. The school should consider reserving one of their end-of-year meetings to examine the principles it has chosen and to determine which aspects have been successful and where things need to be tweaked based on clear goals. This can be accomplished through student and staff surveys as well as behavioral and academic data. For example, if the core character education principle revolves around the school community promoting ethical values, you should interview teachers to find out if they are observing those traits in the classroom. If the school has a way of tracking and positively reinforcing the traits, the committee will need to determine whether this is happening often enough or if the system needs to be adjusted. Any adjustment to the plan needs to be clearly defined to the staff first and then the student body.

Strong Results

Creating a positive school culture through character education is an on-going process that is ever-changing based on the academic and social needs of students. Hard work and determination are the key factors. Ultimately, it’s all worth it when you enter a school of character and observe a climate where students and staff are kind to one another and value their school community. These are schools where students are truly invested in the learning process.

Let’s make soup!

Thursday, February 4th is National Homemade Soup Day.  To celebrate, three members of the #mdeschat PLN shared what “ingredients” make a school great.  They offer the following food for thought, which is best digested with a nice bowl of homemade soup, you decide what kind!

“I’d say the three most important ingredients that will determine if a school is great are people, relationships, and mindset.  A great school doesn’t ever reach “greatness.” The stakeholders have a growth mindset and are always looking for ways to improve and adjust their contributions to improve the school. The journey to greatness is never complete.  You need people who are working to improve themselves, each other, and to teach the students a growth mindset. This includes all stakeholders, not just school staff.  The relationships between people is what will facilitate the school stakeholders in being able to learn and grow from each other. Basically, a great school is one that is better tomorrow than it was today.” Michael Donnelly, @mrdonnelly3, 6th GradeTeacher, Monarch Global Academy                   

“I think there are a lot of components that make a school great, but the number one “ingredient” is the ability to take feedback in all aspects and create change.  Feedback from students, parents and teachers.  Teachers accepting feedback from administration, parents and students.  Administrators taking feedback from students, parents and teachers and making changes.  Accepting feedback to make positive changes leads to a positive school culture where everyone feels like they have a voice in their child’s education which ultimately leads to student success.”-Ginger Henley, @miss_gingerann, Principal, Crofton Elementary

“Ingredients needed to make a school great: a great leader, fearless teachers, support, and creative freedom.  I think that a great leader is someone with a clear vision and the ability to both support and push staff members towards, not only that vision, but also reaching their full creative and professional potentials. To make a school great, teachers need to be fearless. They need to be willing to try new things (and possibly fail), take risks, and push themselves out of their comfort zones. Teachers will only be able to do this with a leader who will stand up for his/her teachers when necessary, otherwise there is so much extra “stuff” that will hold a school back from being exceptional. There needs to be out-of-the-box thinking, learning, and teaching happening to make a school great, and there needs to be a certain level of creative freedom in order for that to occur.” -Bonita Bradway, @boncheri86, 4th Grade Teacher, Tyler Heights Elementary

Wow, great advice from three exceptional educators!  Thanks to Mike, Ginger, and Bonita for sharing their “recipes” for school success.  Do you have any advice or thoughts on what successful schools do, or should do?  Add your ideas in the comment section below to keep the conversation going!

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.

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!