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!

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!

Are you a dynamic leader?

What is dynamic leadership?  How do you know if you have it or not? Why is it important?  School leaders continue to take on a range of daily responsibilities. Dynamic leadership may be the singular approach that allows schools to meet with success.  Our students and teachers cannot afford to be led by those who lack the skills to ensure that every minute of their day is spent meaningfully.  Are you a dynamic leader?  Let’s look at the arguable qualities that make a leader dynamic or not.

Dynamic​​​                           Not
Fearless                  ​​​          Fearful
Inclusive​​​                           Isolated
Failure as opportunity​ ​      Failure as disaster
Innovative​​​                        Traditional
Proactive​​​                          Reactive

Fearless, not fearful

Leaders who are consumed by fear are unable to make even the simplest decisions.  They are the veritable “deer in the headlights.”  On the other hand, fearless leaders are thoughtful and decisive.  They weigh all of the options while making timely decisions.  Fearless leaders operate from a mindset that focuses on what is right for students first.  They don’t allow fear to cloud their judgment.

Inclusive, not isolated

Dynamic leaders understand that you can never have enough help and support.  While they are confident in their ability, they know that the success of their school depends on many people.  They give a voice to students, teachers, and parents.  Most importantly, they trust that others are competent and capable.  They assume the best in people without being naïve.

Failure as opportunity, not disaster

Failure is inevitable.  Dynamic leaders expect failure, some even plan for it.  Dynamic leaders model their humanity by acknowledging failure and using it to plan for the next success.  Students benefit from observing school leaders and teachers who model a mature response to failure.  If we expect our students to be resilient, we need to give them the tools for handling failure.

Innovative, not traditional

Traditional thinking gets you traditional results.  Innovative thinking, however, can take you places you’ve never been before.  What is the number one quality of an innovator?  They look to others for new ideas.  Yes, some innovators create their own great ideas, but most innovation builds on the work of others.  Innovative leaders are self-aware.  They know their strengths and challenges, so they fill in the gaps by capitalizing on the human assets around them.

Proactive, not reactive

Dynamic leaders are always one step ahead of change.  They anticipate change and start planning for it before it’s necessary.  Proactive leaders are calm and cool under duress because they are rarely surprised.  They support students and teachers by contextualizing change.  In schools, proactive leaders integrate new curricula, standards, and teaching practices with those already in place.  Their “we can do this” attitude reassures others that someone is looking out for them.

While dynamic leadership can be discussed and debated, it is harder to define.  It may be one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” phenomena.  What other qualities make a leader dynamic?  Post your comments below or tweet out a response to this post and help us grow the list.

The Way of Mindful Education

This book review, by Christopher Wooleyhand, appears in the November/December edition of Principal magazine.  Copyright 2014 National Association of Elementary School Principals.  All rights reserved.

The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-being in Teachers and Students.  Daniel Rechtschaffen.  W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, 318 pages.

How much better would your school be if the teachers in your building were focused, attentive, and compassionate?  Extend those same thoughts to students.  Would your school be the ideal learning environment if your students were trained to handle the stress and trauma that can keep them from realizing their full potential?  In The Way of Mindful Education, Daniel Rechtschaffen offers educators the tools to develop classrooms and schools that cultivate attention while promoting kindness toward ourselves and others.

​Rechtschaffen, a therapist and founder of the Mindful Education Institute, has trained educators around the world.  He discusses the history of mindful education and provides the reader with ample research supporting the benefits of this unique approach.  According to Rechtschaffen, mindfulness was given birth after World War II when the World Health Organization commissioned a study on the psychological health of European children.  Researchers and educators finally began to understand the emotional needs of children in context to their academic and worldly success.  Rechtschaffen presents the science behind mindfulness to support its use in education.  He believes that mindfulness, “[c]ultivates attention, compassion, happiness, and relaxation and decreases impulsivity, anxiety, and other emotional states.”

​After establishing the credibility of mindfulness, Rechtschaffen goes to work on teachers first.  He encourages teachers to begin a personal journey toward mindfulness that will serve as a good example to their students.  Readers may be tempted to skip this section and move onto how mindfulness can be applied in the classroom.  Rechtschaffen would suggest that we have to, “[t]ake care of ourselves and cultivate our own mindful practice, and what we need to embody our practice in the world.”

​It is in the final two chapters that Rechtschaffen shares the “how to” of mindfulness.  These chapters describe the mindful classroom and the mindful curriculum.  The reader will gain a clear sense of how mindfulness can be employed in any classroom.  Rechtschaffen outlines the qualities of a mindful teacher and the essential ingredients of the mindful classroom in his closing chapters.  Most importantly, he provides the reader with ample resources and lessons that can be used immediately in the classroom.

​While the concept of mindfulness may initially seem complex and unconventional, it is a low-risk, high reward approach to helping teachers and students manage the stresses that impact their daily performance.  That alone makes it worthy of consideration by any school leader who values the emotional needs of students and staff members.