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.

Organizational A.D.D.

Even the best organizations can suffer from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).  In his 2001 book, Good to Great, Jim Collins uses an analogy that illustrates how organizations succeed and fail based on what they focus on.  He calls this phenomenon the Flywheel and the Doom Loop.  He paints a vivid picture of pushing a massive metal disc weighing 2,000 pounds.  With effort, there is eventually a point where the flywheel gets easier to push, a breakthrough period where the momentum kicks in.

Collins connects this analogy to organizations that succeed after a cohesive effort focused on growth.  It comes with consistency and a commitment to clearly defined principles and goals.  The “Doom Loop” is what happens when the organization is tempted to change direction.  Picture trying to change the direction of the 2,000-pound flywheel.  Progress must slow down for the turn to begin or the wheel will fall over.  Momentum is lost and, in many cases, organizations stall.

This is the current state of many school systems across the United States.  Two and a half years after the signing of ESSA, we continue to wait for its impact at the local level.  The flywheel is stalled.  In the meantime, states are developing new rating systems and local school systems are rolling out their plans to meet the new guidelines.  It is a huge responsibility.

One of the by-products of modern school reform is that the number of people with their “hands in the pot” has increased.  This creates challenges that reach directly to the classroom level.  School districts, in their attempt to meet the needs of all children, are all over the place with their initiatives.  Organizational ADD leads to school districts doing many things to support students, but none of them particularly well.

Schools must support students through holistic approaches, but their focus and efforts should be their choice.  Our role as administrators should be to make sure that the “toolbox” that teachers use is filled with every tool they need to help students.  Once we’ve done that, teachers should be empowered to use those tools at their discretion.  We must stop micro-managing our schools and our teachers.  If we get stuck in the “doom loop,” it is the students who will be run over by the flywheel.

School Leadership Lessons from Great Generals

In June of last year, I began working at an elementary school that sits on a military post.  I am slowly learning about the needs of our military families.  It is an honor to be closely connected to those who serve our country.  The more I learn, the more I realize that there are significant connections between the beliefs of our greatest military leaders and effective educational leadership practices.  Let’s look at how some of their individual philosophies lend themselves to school leadership.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower understood that integrity is the defining characteristic of a leader.  School leaders who seek to make a difference for all students must stand as an example of integrity to their communities.  They must be seen as fair and consistent.  The decisions they make should always be centered in what is best for children.

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do.  You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example that they’ll follow.”

-General Colin Powell

Colin Powell takes Eisenhower’s quote one step further by reminding us that leaders are constantly being watched.  School leaders should be aware that while their words are important, what they DO is even more important.  While that can cause great stress, it’s simply a matter of asking ourselves, “Is what I’m doing consistent with what I’m saying?”

“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary, an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.”

-Gen. John J. Pershing

Pershing (originally a teacher of local African American children in Missouri) was a military genius who trained some of the greatest generals of the 20th century.  His point here is that being competent matters.  You can’t just show up.  School leaders can build the capacity of their teachers through a strong, enduring commitment.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

-George S. Patton

Patton (who incidentally served as Pershing’s aide) understood that “group think” can kill an organization.  School leaders will benefit from listening to others even when their views differ.  If school leaders foster distributed leadership, then everyone knows their opinions matter- that’s a good thing for schools.

“We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”
–General Omar Bradley

Omar Bradley (the son of a school teacher) reminds us that we need to “stay the course.”  School leaders who are attempting to make significant changes must be vigilant in protecting the mission, vision, and goals of their schools.  Once you decide on your course of action, make sure that everything you do aligns with and supports that plan.

“Neither a wise nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower (who marched behind Pershing’s coffin with Omar Bradley in 1948) learned that successful leaders plan for the future.  They don’t wait around to find out what the future holds.  They anticipate and plan for it.  Effective school leaders do the same.  The energy it takes to plan for the future is much less than the energy required to react to unknown or surprising turns in the road.

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

-General Norman Schwarzkopf

Schwarzkopf states a plain truth.  Most of us know the right thing to do.  School leaders who are reflective are able to put their egos aside when making important decisions.  It’s part of the integrity piece that Eisenhower spoke of.  Sometimes doing the right thing means more work for us.  That’s okay.  That’s probably what makes it the right thing to do.

 “When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.”

-General Bruce C. Clarke

Finally, Clark’s message is that we don’t have to look far to find out where things went wrong.  Start with yourself.  School leaders who seek to assign blame will make those around them miserable.  Take responsibility, even when you don’t think it all rests with you.  More importantly, get past the blame phase and start working on the solution.

So much wisdom from our military leadership.  We can certainly learn from them and apply their knowledge to supporting our teachers, students, and communities.

Full Disclosure:  I am a big fan of General Pershing’s and recommend you read Jim Lacey’s book, Pershing.  Some of the background for this blog post came from the book.

The Gift of Trust

“The waste of life occasioned by trying to do too many things at one time is appalling.”

-Orison Swett Marden

Orison Swett Marden wrote a book in 1894 titled Pushing to the Front and founded Success magazine in 1897.  He was the Stephen Covey/Malcom Gladwell of his day.  It’s amazing that over 120 years later, we are still discussing many of the same life and leadership lessons.

Marden’s quote symbolizes the biggest hurdle school leaders face- prioritizing what is important.  If everything is important, then nothing is important.  School leaders have an obligation to simplify the complexities of modern teaching and learning.  There are far too many hands in the pot.  Too many chef’s in the kitchen.  Too many jockeys, not enough horses. Too many…well , you get it.  Everyone wants to give their ten cents to “fix” education.

Maybe education needs to be fixed.  I am not so sure.  What I am sure of is that there are too many people who are far removed from the schoolhouse, from the classroom, trying to tell teachers what and how to teach.  Most, not all, are well-intentioned.  They want schools to produce students who will contribute to their communities, to their country.  Don’t we all want that?

School districts are being micromanaged by the federal government, state governments, and local municipalities.  This gets passed on to school boards and makes its way to the schoolhouse.  The autonomy of the classroom teacher has been replaced with constraints that are building a generation of self-doubting, stressed-out teachers, who are questioning their career choices.

Despite all of this, our teachers are working harder than ever.  They work longer hours.  They do more with less every year.  They are heroes to their students.  They juggle the demands of teaching with the needs of their own families.  Most importantly, they never make excuses when their students struggle.  They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back to doing their best for each and every student.

What can we do for them?  What gift can we give them?  It’s simple, we can give the gift of trust.  We can remember that they are experts in their profession who know their students better than anyone else.  We can support them, provide resources and training, then get out of their way and watch them work their magic.  We can make sure that their time is spent on what is most important, the children.  Let’s give teachers the gift of trust, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Happy four years of blogging to me…

This was my first post four years ago.  I’ve written dozens of posts since, but I revisit this one to remind myself why I started.

So, why call a blog Common Sense School Leadership?  As far back as I can remember, when it comes to following someone, all I have ever wanted is to be led by someone with common sense.  It seems like a simple and practical wish.  Common sense leaders are confident in their ability, but also keenly aware that they don’t know it all.

Leaders with common sense have a balanced perspective on life and work.  They work hard and play hard and they never take themselves too seriously.  Common sense leaders protect their employees in the way that Todd Whitaker discusses in his book, Shifting the Monkey.  Common sense leaders intuitively know how to motivate, inspire, and challenge those who work for them.

Can anyone be a common sense leader?  Probably not, common sense is hard to teach.  You might be a common sense school leader if…

-your first thoughts are always centered on what’s best for students when solving problems.

-you see teachers as leadership assets in your building.

-you recognize your own power and reflect on whether your decisions are based on protecting or maintaining that power, or what’s best for your students and staff.

-you allow for some wait time before making important decisions.

-you value laughter and it can be heard throughout your building.

-you lean on others for advice and seek it out when you’ve made a mistake.

-you trust others, even before they’ve earned it.

Common sense leadership is needed now more than ever.  The number of changes occurring in schools across the country requires common sense leadership that can help students, teachers, and parents understand it all.  How about if we all try to be the common sense school leaders our communities deserve?

School Leadership: It’s like riding a motorcycle!

I began riding a motorcycle over two years ago.  I never had any intention of becoming a biker.  I was happy and busy and certainly didn’t need a new hobby.  I was 51 when I started.  Such a cliché.  Mid-life crisis, right?  Not really, but it’s hard to overcome appearances.  I blame my friends.  They started riding a few months before me, got their licenses, and took to riding like ducks to the water.  Every time we got together they would ask me when I was going to join them.  I scoffed at them, laughed, and tried to change the conversation, but they sowed a seed.  I finally gave in and tried out my friend’s bike.  I was hooked.  A week later I bought my first bike (I’m already on my second, it’s bigger and faster of course).  Over the past two years I have put in about 11,000 miles on my bike(s).  I’ve been to Key West, Daytona, and all over the Maryland/Delaware area.  The more I ride, the more I see the parallels between riding a motorcycle and school leadership.  Here are a few of those lessons learned:

Balance

Before I could take the motorcycle license test, I had to get experience.  You have to ride a motorcycle to get better at it, so for three months I was “riding dirty,” with no license.  I would ride around my neighborhood, never venturing too far.  One day I was at a stop sign.  I thought the bike was in first gear as I prepared to take off.  I wasn’t in first gear.  I was in neutral.  I picked up my feet (bad decision) hit the throttle and fell over.  Luckily, my body broke the bike’s fall.  I was bruised along the right side and very embarrassed.  It took me a while to re-build my confidence, but I did.

Lesson:  Riding a motorcycle and school leadership require balance.  School leaders who forget to nurture their personal lives will lose their balance and fall over.  Sub lesson: Never give up! 

Braking

Just after getting my license, I was heading down a very busy four lane highway.  I was behind my friends and decided to zoom past them for fun.  I didn’t see that the traffic in front of them had stopped.  I hit the back brake too hard and my bike started to fishtail.  I was headed into the back of a mini-van and swerved off the road into a grassy median strip to avoid a collision.  I stayed on the bike, went down a small hill, and gradually worked my way back to the road.  I was uninjured, but startled by how quickly things went bad.  I spent the next several weeks working on my braking skills.

Lesson:  Know when to slow down.  School leaders are always on the go.  Sometimes we have to hit the brakes and change our path to avoid burning out or colliding with others.

The Ride

Not all my lessons have come from mishaps.  Riding a motorcycle is freeing.  It’s like riding a roller coaster without the rails.  The people I ride with agree that once you learn to ride a motorcycle you gradually relax and think less about the “how” and start enjoying the “why.”  When you first start riding you’re thinking about the clutch, the gear shift lever, the brakes, the throttle and everything else that goes with staying up and on the road.  Later on, these become second nature and you begin to have fun.

Lesson:  Once you become an experienced school leader you can begin to enjoy the job in its entirety.  Try not to get so caught up in the minutiae that you fail to enjoy the children, the staff, and the parents.  Being a school leader is fun, enjoy the ride.

Zen

Riding a motorcycle takes patience.  One of the first things you learn in a motorcycle safety course is that you must assume that no one can see you.  Ride like you’re invisible.  Every time I get on the bike I must remind myself to “be cool.”  It doesn’t take long on a bike ride before someone in a car does something dangerous that puts you in peril.  If you internalize everything, it will consume you and you can easily become an aggressive rider.  Ride with confidence, but never assume others are paying attention to you.  Be cool.

Lesson:  You control your emotions and your response when things go wrong.  Be patient, take time, and breathe before you make important decisions.  Nothing good happens when decisions are made in anger. 

Humility

Being confident on a bike is important, but over-confidence is a problem.  I learn something new every time I ride.  I am always trying to improve my skills.  The moment you think you’ve mastered the skill of riding a motorcycle is the moment you need to put the bike away for good.  Humility on a motorcycle will keep you safe and, hopefully, alive.  After just two years of riding, I know I have much more to learn.

Lesson:  The best school leaders understand that their growth and learning needs to be continuous.  School leaders who think they’ve “arrived” will eventually find that their destination can never reached.  Overconfidence in school leadership leads to a lack of collaboration.  Schools need leaders who recognize their limitations and value the knowledge of others. 

Chrome up, rubber down.  Ride on!

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!

Lessons Learned Through Sports

I grew up playing sports.  My three brothers and I were always on the go.  Whether it was playing whiffle ball in the backyard or tackle football in the nearby field, we were always playing something.  We spent very little time in the house.  Our neighborhood was our playground.

I played baseball, lacrosse, football, basketball, soccer, and wrestled.  I wasn’t an athlete.  I liked to wear a uniform.  Seriously, I was lured to sports by the smell of a fresh new uniform, hat, or helmet.  We grew up in a humble home.  We had what we needed, but we were never spoiled.  Sports allowed us to be anything we wanted to be.  They were an escape to a great adventure.

As adult, when I look back on those years, I realize I learned more about leadership through sports than I ever have from a training or professional development experience.  The lessons I learned from playing sports have stayed with me through every step of my career.  They are simple lessons, yet they have provided me with a stable base in the most challenging times.

Here are a few of those lessons:

1-Preparation is important

To be successful in sports and in life, you have to be prepared.  Being prepared means you study.  You study your craft.  You read.  You consider yourself a lifelong learner.  Every destination is the starting point to the next journey.  People who think they’ve arrived get lazy and complacent.  Celebrate success, then make your next plan.

2-You have to be willing to work hard

I grew up in an era when people said, “Hard work is its own reward.”  There is great value in sweating and extending yourself beyond your comfort level.  In some ways, the results don’t always matter if you are willing to work hard.  Success happens through fixing mistakes.  Putting your head down and giving that extra effort often leads to good results.

3-Teamwork is key

It is rare for anyone to succeed without the support of others.  Teamwork isn’t always pretty.  Teammates can disagree, argue, and push your buttons.  Being on a team isn’t always a comfortable experience.  That’s a good thing.  Few great accomplishments ever come from completely harmonious efforts.  As long as everyone has the same goal and vision, the team will eventually function at a high level.

4-Your attitude matters

If you don’t find joy in your professional pursuits, consider finding another field.  Your attitude matters.  Nothing inspires others more than working with someone who has a true passion for their profession.  Are you going to have a great attitude every day? No, of course not.  Recognize those moments and do your best to protect others from your mood or find a good listener and share your worries.

5-You won’t always win

I teach chess to elementary students.  The first conversation we have before touching a piece is about winning and losing.  Everyone eventually fails at something.  Failure is a given.  It’s all about how you respond.  Resilience is becoming a scarce personal commodity.  Spend a little time mourning your loss, then make a plan to get better.

6-You learn more from losing

Winning is awesome, but we rarely learn much from it.  Winning teams are constantly examining their success.  They evaluate their individual players and make adjustments as necessary.  However, when they lose, they use the opportunity to get better.  They don’t wallow in self-pity.  They find the teachable moments from losing.

7-Continually set goals and revise

In sports and in life, we must be willing to set goals.  Say them out loud.  Tell them to other people.  Write them down.  We all have the power to reinvent ourselves.  Whether you reach a goal or not, set a new one.  When you stop setting goals, you are making a conscious decision to withdraw from the game.  That’s no fun.  Life should be fun.  Set goals that will stretch you as a person.  Those are the goals that will give you the most personal satisfaction when you reach them.

I am grateful for the opportunities my parents gave me growing up.  They gave me the support and encouragement I needed to try a variety of sports.  With four sons born close together, they spent hours driving us to practice, coaching, and cheering us on.  Sports are not life, but they certainly make life more enjoyable.  Most importantly, they teach us lessons that can’t be learned any other way.

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!