Advice from A Great PLN!

The topic for #mdeschat last night was looking toward the New Year.  While the challenges of teaching and leading are many, it was reassuring to hear the hope and energy expressed by many in last night’s chat.  The last question was “fill-in-the-blank” and the answers are a good example of the power of positive thinking.

“2015 will be a great year because…

@WalterReap

…I will continue to avoid “the box” and create an environment where creativity is valued.”

@BarbaraGruener

…I am surrounded by passionate educators who uplift, encourage, empathize, understand, care, support, hope, heal and love.”

@stony12270

…we have amazing resources to utilize as educators! Twitter networking has no limits!”

@teacherwithtuba

…that beats the alternative.”

@justin_heid

…more and more educators are stepping out of their comfort zones for the benefit of student learning and growth.”

@krisyvonne

…I will listen to understand.”

@JonHarper70bd

…each day my own PLN grows and I get to learn from brilliant people who have much to teach me.”

@TiawanaG

…I will continue to build strong, long-lasting relationships through social media.”

@Renglish71

…I have family by my side, a career that’s invigorating, and a network of colleagues on Twitter to support me!”

@ppw78

…I have a balance between work and home and a child graduating high school.”

@Mrs_Abi_VR

…I’m lucky enough to have another year in the world’s greatest profession!”

@SchooLeader

…I have decided to make it so.”

Such inspiration from people who spend every day supporting teachers and students!  Perhaps Brandon Kiser’s (@SchooLeader) last statement says it best, 2015 will be great if we only decide to make it so!  That spirit of thinking reminds us of our potential.  Is it possible to make significant change and progress just because we decide to?  I sure hope so.

Reflections by a first-year assistant principal

Elizabeth Manning is a first-year assistant principal at Richard Henry Lee Elementary in Glen Burnie, Maryland. She is hosting #mdeschat this Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.  Her topic for the night is reflecting on the calendar year.  Elizabeth took the time out of her busy schedule for a little reflecting of her own.  Her responses to the questions below provide insight to anyone interested in pursuing a career in educational administration.

Tell us about yourself.

I moved to Maryland 9 years ago when I was hired to teach at Tyler Heights Elementary.  Since then, I worked for the district Title I Office and the Elementary Network Support Team.  My current position, however, is one that I have been ambitiously seeking for a while, and I am grateful that I can call Richard Henry Lee Elementary home.  I am thankful to be back in a school setting interacting with teachers and students on a daily basis.

As a new assistant principal, what has been your biggest challenge this year?

My biggest challenge was learning how to do things the Richard Henry Lee way.  Each school has a culture that makes them unique, forming relationships with staff members early on has helped me become a quick learner as to how business is done here.  At the beginning of the school year I would say to people, “I don’t know, what I don’t know.”  As I get to know the students, the staff, and parents, it is increasingly evident that this school is student-centered with a focus on literacy and STEAM initiatives, but not to the abandonment of creating lifelong learners and responsible community members.

What has surprised you?

It always surprises me how fast both the day, and school year, is flying by.  I often feel like I’m out at morning bus duty, take a walk through the school and next thing you know, I look at my watch and its time for lunch duty!  It doesn’t seem possible that we are already well into December and will soon be writing 2015 to date our papers.  Finding the time to fit everything into our fast-paced days is something I’m working on improving.

How have relationships changed from your transition as a teacher to administrator?

As a teacher, it is easier to find a “buddy” who is going through the same things you are experiencing, within your grade level or at your school.  As an assistant principal, there is no one else with your job in your building.  I’ve had many roles as a “teacher leader,” but the dynamic shifts when the role of “evaluator” is added to your responsibilities.  Conversations are constantly about “What is best for the students?” as opposed to what is fair and equal to my grade level, my classroom, or my current role.  I am thankful to have a principal who is a great mentor and has offered suggestions on how to make the transition from, “teacher leader” to “student-growth leader.”

What advice would you give an aspiring administrator?

If I could tell an aspiring administrator anything, it would be “do your homework, don’t be complacent.” If you are prepping for the SLLA (School Leaders Licensure Assessment), then study, read books and take practice tests.  If you are prepping for an interview, read books and talk to assistant principals, principals, regional assistant superintendents (or principal supervisors) to get feedback or advice.  Then, when you are finally hired as a new assistant principal, keep pushing the envelope to try new things, read the latest research, journal about your experiences (or blog), communicate frequently with your principal and take the time to reflect!  The key is to prepare to work hard.

How do you think the second half of the school year will be different than the first?

My challenge for the first half of the year was learning the “what’s, how’s, and who’s” of the building.  Now that I’m familiar with school procedures and student names, the second half of the year will be a big push for continuous development of the action steps on the school improvement plan.  With the new PARCC assessment on the horizon, it will be important to keep our academic focus narrow so we can achieve our goals during non-testing times.  The entire school year is a time for growing our students into the kind, caring, capable learners that will be the responsible community members of the future.

Thanks, Elizabeth, your reflection skills will make you an excellent principal!

Growing Sustainable Teacher Leadership

One of the biggest challenges principals have today is hiring, growing, and sustaining teacher leaders.  In his article for Phi Delta Kappan titled, Beginning Teacher Induction: What the Data Tell Us, Richard Ingersoll discusses teacher attrition.  He noted that, “…40% and 50% of new teachers leave within the first five years of entry into teaching.”  That statistic alone should give principals pause to reflect on their hiring practices, induction efforts, and school culture.  Teacher leadership is difficult to foster when teachers are fleeing the profession.

What can principals do to ensure that the teachers they hire are successful for years to come?  Principals must develop a comprehensive and inclusive approach to growing sustainable teacher leadership in their buildings.  If principals adopt consistent practices in four key areas:  hiring; induction/support; observation/evaluation; and professional development, they can improve teacher retention and focus their efforts on growing teacher leadership.

Hiring

Principals will tell you that growing sustainable leadership begins with the hiring process. Hire a poor candidate and you will spend a long time undoing your error.  Hire a great candidate and you can stand back with pride as they excel.  Simple enough, but how can you increase your chances of hiring a great teacher?  A few simple practices can dramatically increase the odds of hiring the next teacher of the year candidate:

▪ Hire by committee- Let your teachers help select their next colleague.  This immediately improves your new employee’s chances of being successful because their peers will be invested in their future.  New teachers who have colleagues looking out for them will find it hard to fail.

▪ Ask questions that are based on your school’s values- The questions don’t have to be lengthy, but they should be the same for every candidate to ensure fairness. The interview committee should get a sense of whether the candidate will fit in with the school’s culture.  Develop questions that evoke the responses you want (e.g. Give us an example of how you have collaborated with other teachers to meet the needs of your students).

▪ Call references- It is surprising how many principals skip this basic step.  Even if you already know who you want to hire, take the time to call their references.  It may take a little time, but it could save you from hiring the wrong person.

▪ Avoid hiring from desperation- Principals often end up advertising positions and interviewing at the last minute.  An unexpected retirement, a family crisis, and suddenly you are desperate to fill an opening.  This is the worst position to be in.  It’s like buying a car when yours has to be towed onto the lot.  Be patient.  Hire a long-term sub if you have to, but don’t hire someone just to check it off your “to do” list.

In her 2013 article, Teachers Hiring Teachers, Mary Clement noted that involving teachers in the hiring process strengthens teacher leadership.  She also found that when teachers are included in the selection process, schools are more likely to “make good matches.”

Induction/Support

​Once you have your new hire, you need to provide the support to get them off on the right foot.  It can be a very helpless feeling to walk into a building and not know who your resources are.  Planning for the induction and support process shows new employees they are valued and that you recognize their needs are different.

In their 2012 Teacher Induction Discussion Guide, The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) provides suggestions for the scope and structure of teacher induction programs.  They suggest that comprehensive teacher induction programs include the following:

▪ multi-year support for new teachers for at least two years;
▪ high-quality mentoring utilizing carefully selected and well-prepared mentors;
▪ regularly scheduled common planning time with other teachers;
▪ ongoing professional development; and
▪ standards-based evaluation of new teachers throughout the process.

As we all know, relationships are key to the achievement of our students.  They are also the key to the success of our teachers.  The success of new teachers is highly dependent on the relationships they have with their colleagues, support personnel, and their principal.  Principals can strongly influence the progress of new teachers just by being available to them.  Schools that grow skilled teachers do so through comprehensive and highly supportive methods.  When teachers feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, they rise to the occasion and grow exponentially in their skills.

Observation/Evaluation

​The observation and evaluation process is a critical component in growing sustainable teacher leadership.  Principals who focus on using teacher observation and evaluation to improve instruction will have more success than those who use it as a punitive tool.  When observation and evaluation conferences include honest conversations about student performance, they are much more likely to lead to teacher growth.

​Charlotte Danielson is recognized as a leader in the teacher observation and evaluation field.  Many districts have adopted her approach when developing teacher and principal evaluation models.  Her Framework for Teaching: Evaluation Instrument synthesizes her previous work and responds to the instructional implications of the Common Core State Standards.  Danielson’s framework addresses four domains essential to the teacher observation and rating process:

1. Planning and Preparation
2. Classroom Environment
3. Instruction
4. Professional Responsibilities

Danielson’s framework is comprehensive and targets the skills and knowledge that teachers are expected to master.  Her framework is based on empirical studies that connectspecific teacher behaviors to student achievement.  Teachers are unlikely to feel threatened if observation and evaluation discussions are centered on student achievement.  In order to grow sustainable leadership in schools, teachers and principals must work collaboratively in the observation and evaluation process.

Professional Development

The state of professional development in education is rapidly changing.  Professional development models that rely heavily on the expertise of outside facilitators are passé.  Just like principals expect teachers to provide instruction to meet the needs of all learners, they mustprovide the same for the developmental needs of their teachers.  Professional development should be job-embedded and inclusive of the needs of individual teachers.

In 2012, the Annenberg Innovation Lab released a report titled, Designing with Teachers:  Participatory Approaches to Professional Development in Education.  The group that collaborated on the report included researchers, teachers, and school administrators from a variety of schools and states.  The group was seeking to construct a framework for participatory professional development.  They found that there are four core values associated with participatory PD:

1. Participation, not indoctrination- collective intelligence, everyone (teachers included) has a role in PD.
2. Exploration, not prescription- teachers have a say in the scope of PD which should be individualized for their content area.
3. Contextualization, no abstraction- PD is practical, meaningful, and immediately useful.
4. Iteration, not repetition- PD is evaluated as an iterative process and the selection of PD comes from the examination of data.​

Modern principals must be innovative in all aspects of their work.  Innovation in professional development is a necessity.  Thoughtfully designed professional development can sustain teachers throughout their career.  Principals who know the strengths of their staff and design PD that is specific to their needs create learning environments that are healthy for teachers and students.

It’s About School Culture

Ultimately, teacher retention and development are products of school culture.  A culture that values the contributions of everyone is able to thrive even when typical levels of teacher turnover occur.  Principals who hire effectively, support new teachers, foster the observation process, and provide innovative PD greatly increase the likelihood that teachers will remain in, and contribute to, the profession.

Teachers want to make a difference.  They want to be the best they can.  If schools thoughtfully support their professional needs, anything is possible.  The belief system in a school that values teacher retention and leadership is the same value system that will support student learning and growth.  That creates the ultimate win/win opportunity for schools.

This article, written by Christopher Wooleyhand, was published in the September/October 2014 issue of Principal magazine. Copyright 2014 National Association of Elementary School Principals. All Rights Reserved.

Retreating to the Chesapeake Bay

“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest- but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”

Richard Louv
Last Child in the Woods

I had the pleasure of spending three days last week on a principals’ retreat sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  We gathered at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Maryland for introductions and orientation prior to boarding a CBF vessel for Tangier Island, Virginia.  Our three days were filled with exploration, discovery, and hands-on learning; the kind of teaching and learning that all children and adults should be exposed to.

The CBF principals’ program promotes using environmental education to boost academic achievement and get students involved in improving their community.  It offers participants a chance to network with other principals, to share ideas, and to learn from each other in a truly unique setting.

We canoed, scraped for soft crabs, set out and pulled in crab pots, visited the Tangier Combined School, fished, progged (beach combed) and ate local fare.  Maryland elementary, middle, and high school principals from Harford, Anne Arundel and Montgomery County participated.  It was obvious that each shared a passion for being outdoors and, most importantly, for involving their students and teachers in learning that promotes the value of environmental education.

One of the outcomes of the experience is that the participants develop an environmental education action plan.  Each principal creates a plan to pay their learning forward.  This aspect of the principals’ retreat has led to many schools in Maryland expanding environmental education opportunities for students.  Several of the principals are spreading the word to their districts on the benefits of getting their students outside.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because we are raising a generation of students who spend little to no time in the outdoors.  While research supports the benefits of environmental education on learning, our motivation should be simpler.  We need to get our children outside because it’s good for them.  It makes them well-rounded individuals.  It makes all of us better people.  Don’t let this generation miss out on the value of knowing the woods or lying in a field listening to the wind and looking at the clouds.

Summer Renewal

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

The modern educator can easily be overwhelmed by the challenges of teaching in the 21st century.  If we don’t take the time to renew ourselves on a personal and professional level, we won’t be effective in supporting the growth of our students.  The greatest gift of being an educator is that every school year starts anew.

What will you do to sharpen your saw this summer?  What books will you read for personal and professional pleasure?  I’ve included some links below to potential summer reading lists.  Here are responses to those questions from a few colleagues and PLN members:

I am planning on reading, Falling In Love With Close Reading as well as articles etc. on arts integration since we are in the exploratory stages.  I’ll be sharpening the saw at the beach as much as possible.

-Donna Usewick, @dsusewick

For recreational reading, I hope to read The English Girl by Daniel Silva and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  For professional reading, I plan to read Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen.  I am traveling to Ireland as soon as school is out and taking a short trip to St. Michael’s, Maryland at the end of July for some golf.  I hope to get some more golf in on the Fridays that schools are closed.  I am also attending the NAESP conference in Nashville this July.

-Theresa Zablonski, @tzablonski

I will be reading The Homework Myth by Alfie Cohn, Positive Discipline by Nelsen, as well as Sue O’Connell’s book on math practices.  This summer, I plan to reflect on the school year and think about each aspect of our school and how to make improvements.  For myself, I will spend time with my family and hit the beach!

-Cheryl Cox, @CoxCherylcox628

The Ultimate Summer Reading List for Teachers via Scholastic:

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

The best books about educational leadership via Amazon.com:

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

Top Ten School Leadership Books via @AngelaMaiers:

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

What Data Should We Use?

School leaders and teachers have been besieged by national and local experts who emphasize the need to make “data-driven decisions.”  Check the agenda for any educational conference and you will likely find the term “data-driven decision making” in the description of several speakers’ sessions.  The term data-driven is a catchphrase of educational jargon that is gradually losing its meaning.  Like a song that has been over-played on the radio, the concept of data-driven decision making is losing its momentum and “listeners” are beginning to tune out.

How do we re-invigorate the discussion around the meaningful use of data in our schools?  Let’s start by broadening the definition of “data.”  What comes to mind when someone suggests an examination of school data?   Can we get beyond the obvious data sources and consider non-traditional data points that may be greater indicators of student success?  Here are a few thoughts that may broaden our definition of data:

Attendance– It’s really simple; students who attend school regularly do better than students who don’t.  What does your attendance data look like and what do you do when students don’t come to school?

Survey teachers– Ask your teachers what they see and what they need to be better at what they do.  You can save a lot of time by valuing the instincts of your teachers.

Interview students– Ask your students what they like, what they want, and how they like to learn.  Just be prepared for their answers.

Observe instruction– Another obvious data point.  What patterns (positive and negative) exist within and between grade levels?  How can we support teachers in the “nuts and bolts” of teaching?

Teacher expertise– How can we develop teachers on an individual level?  Can we differentiate their professional development in the same spirit that we expect them to differentiate instruction for their students?

Grades– Are grading practices aligned with instruction?  Are we examining progress toward the standards to refine our teaching?

Work samples/portfolios– Tests are not the only indicator of student success.  Can students retain and apply what they have learned and does it show in their daily work?  What does student work look like over time?  Is measuring growth still relevant?

Data-driven decisions should not be limited by examining only formative and summative assessments over the course of a school year.  Anecdotal and observational data are just as relevant when assessing student and teacher success.  Ultimately, an emphasis on a variety of data sources will provide a clearer picture of student performance.  Then you can get to work on what to do.

Strategic Planning in Schools

The strategic planning process begins in the spring for many schools.  It can be challenging for school leadership teams to shift their thinking from closing out the current year to preparing for the next.  In April, I reviewed The School Improvement Planning Handbook by Duke, Carr, and Sterrett.  Their seven-step plan for developing and implementing school improvement plans is a good place to start.  They recommend the following steps:

  1. Data gathering- use multiple sources, anecdotal, formative, and summative
  2. Diagnosing- examine the data to pinpoint concerns
  3. Assessing context, constraints, and capacity- what factors will impact your efforts?
  4. Focusing- decide your focus, align your goals, and provide a rationale
  5. Determining strategies- what will you do and how will you measure it?
  6. Developing the plan- what resources will you need and how will you fit it all in?
  7. Managing and monitoring the plan- when will you review your plan’s success?

Whether you follow these steps exactly, or modify them to meet your needs, the strategic planning process requires great thought by school leadership teams.  More than likely, your plan will be a combination of continuing some practices, deleting some, and strengthening others.  Arguably, the most important aspect of strategic planning is that it is done collaboratively.  The likelihood for success rises when strategic planning is a shared practice.

I asked several of my principal colleagues to share how they begin the strategic planning process in their schools.  Here is what they said:

We are in the process of looking at the work each grade level has done related to the school improvement plan.  We are determining the next level of work for each grade level and for individual teachers by examining progress over time through the lens of the action steps selected as an area of focus.  We will work vertically to determine grade level and school “next steps” based on commonalities of student “data,” student work samples, and teacher needs.  
Walter Reap (@WalterReap)

I am currently planning an all-day school improvement team meeting with 20 staff members.  We will examine all the data we have:  math, reading, behavior, walk-throughs, observations, science, social studies, writing and work together to begin identifying priorities.  We will then work through the action steps.  We used our last SIT meeting to have teams discuss the current plan and assess where we are and modifications that need to be made.
Cheryl Cox (@CoxCherylcox628)

I sit with my leadership team to analyze data and determine how we are doing with current goals and establish 2 or 3 big rocks for future goals.  Then, with the SIT, we look to see how these rocks can be monitored through daily classroom instructional practice.
Jeffery S. Haynie (@crazydukie)

We’re looking at where we want to be this time next year and how we are going to get there.
Pat Keffer (@psikeffer)

We have been reviewing and analyzing data throughout the year to identify areas in need of growth and successes.  We have used administrative walk-throughs to collect data to make decisions about the next school year.  We look at the positive growth areas so we can expand on them as well as areas of needed improvement.  Our leadership team determined a need for more collaborative planning and team teaching.  I also find opportunities to talk with my colleagues about what they are doing at their schools.  There is power in collaboration and much to be learned from other principals. 
Sue Myers (@SueMyers1984)

As Sue Myers suggests above, collaboration among principals in a district supports the strategic planning process.  It is a model that easily translates to the school level.  When everyone contributes to the instructional vision of the school, only good things can happen!

Twenty-four Things Successful Schools Do

In 2007, Karin Chenoweth (@karinchenoweth) wrote a book titled It’s Being Done.  Her work highlights numerous schools that are successful with diverse student populations.  These schools prove that all students can learn when principals and teachers maintain high expectations and a commitment to the needs of each and every child.

Through a compelling narrative, Chenoweth identified 24 things that successful schools do to meet the needs of all students.  How does your school measure up?

  1. They don’t teach to the test.
  2. They have high expectations for all students.
  3. They know what the stakes are.
  4. They embrace and use data.
  5. They use data to focus on specific students, not just groups.
  6. They constantly reexamine what they do.
  7. They embrace accountability.
  8. They make decisions based on what is good for students.
  9. They use school time wisely.
  10. They leverage community resources.
  11. They expand the time students have in school.
  12. Discipline isn’t about punishment.
  13. They foster an atmosphere of respect.
  14. They like children.
  15. They make sure that students who struggle the most have the best instruction.
  16. Principals are a constant presence.
  17. Principals are not the only leaders.
  18. They pay attention to teacher quality.
  19. Teachers have time to meet and plan collaboratively.
  20. Teachers observe each other.
  21. Professional development is valued.
  22. They train and acculturate new teachers with great thought and purpose.
  23. Office and building staff consider themselves part of the educational mission.
  24. They are nice places to work.

In this era of accountability, the noise created by school reform shouldn’t drown out the important work that is being done in schools across America.  Is your school a nice place to work?  It’s such a simple question, yet it speaks to our priorities.  Can you imagine how great our schools would be if we tried our best to address the 24 practices above?  Luckily, Chenoweth’s book shows us that we don’t have to use our imagination…it’s being done.

Differentiating Staff Development to Grow Teacher Leadership

This is a condensed version of an article I wrote for the spring 2014 edition of Living Education eMagazine.

The National Staff Development Council’s Standards for Staff Development provide guidance to school leaders focused on fostering high-quality professional learning communities.  Principals who are willing to utilize the standards will find that they enable them to address the varied needs of teachers, which, in turn, enhances the learning of an increasingly diverse student population.  School leaders should consider using a differentiated staff development model aligned with the pedagogical practices they expect of their teachers.

The NSDCs context, process and content standards offer a structure that promotes the development of school-based staff development programs capable of creating enduring educational change.  A brief examination of the standards provides insight into how school leaders might differentiate their school-based staff development.

Context Standards

Organizing adults into learning communities does not happen magically.  School leaders must provide the structure and time needed for teachers to collaborate with their peers.  A culture of learning needs to be built in order for teacher capacity to increase (Rutherford, 2006).  While the goals of the learning community should be aligned with district goals, they should be specific to the needs of the local school.

Teachers need time to discuss strategies for getting students to achieve, share their teaching practices, improve their techniques, and set communal student achievement goals (Sawchuk, 2007).  This requires strong leadership and the ability to obtain the required resources.  Principals can share their leadership without risking a loss of control.  In fact, by sharing leadership, they empower their teachers to become partners in the school improvement process.

Process Standards

The end result of all staff development must be improved student performance.  Teachers will support staff development efforts when they can make the connection between what they are asked to do and how it will lead to improved student performance.  Educators in the 21st century are being asked to do more with data than ever.  Formative and summative assessments can assist teachers in making informed instructional decisions.  It is the building principal’s responsibility to structure the school day so that teachers have the time and materials to disaggregate data.

Teachers play a critical role in educational reform and need opportunities to engage in high-quality professional development (Goodnough, 2005).  Data-driven decisions can be made by teachers only when they have the time and support to analyze and interpret data.  Given the time to work with data, teachers are highly capable of analyzing assessment results to identify appropriate instructional strategies.  With guidance, they will be able to modify their teaching to address the specific strengths and challenges of the individual student.

Content Standards

Staff development efforts should ensure equity, quality teaching and family involvement.  In the pursuit of educational excellence, we cannot ignore the social and emotional needs of our students and community.  We are still responsible for educating the whole-child.  The reliance on quantitative data should not preclude schools from actively collecting qualitative data to support their efforts in providing safe, orderly and supportive learning environments.

Teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists and support staff play a vital role in establishing schools that meet the affective needs of all learners.  Their role can easily be extended to staff development directed at encouraging family involvement, equity and school safety.  Meaningful formal and informal staff development should be tailored to the specific needs of the school.  Through these opportunities, teachers become intimately and effectively involved in their communities (Gabriel, 2005).

What Does Differentiated School-based Staff Development Look Like?    

Differentiation for the adult learner parallels differentiation in the classroom.  Principals who expect their teachers to meet the needs of all learners must model effective differentiation practices.  School leaders who value the unique abilities of their teachers, and plan staff development with that in mind, send a message of empowerment to their teachers.  Differentiated staff development builds teacher leadership capacity.  It means utilizing staff members in the decision-making, planning and implementation phases of school-based staff development.  A differentiated approach operates from, and builds on, teacher strengths.  It includes, but is not limited to the use of study groups, action research, collaborative planning, vertical teaming, school developed mini-sessions, and district-wide initiatives.

Study Groups 

There are ample resources available for school leaders to use study groups as an effective differentiation tool.  The key is to include teachers in the selection of the topics and texts they will study.  In planning for a school year, administrators will need to schedule time for teachers to both read and discuss material.

Study groups should operate under short-term parameters.  Depending on the volume of material covered, study groups should last no longer than half of the school year.  Ideally, study groups that conclude by the middle of the year allow teachers to use the second half of the year to integrate what they have learned.

Action Research

School districts are collecting more data than ever and teachers should be given the opportunity to use that data at the building level.  Action research has the potential to answer questions that teachers have about their students and their school.  The most exciting aspect of action research is that it allows schools to take a focused look at their school-specific concerns.

School leaders should support the collection of anecdotal, qualitative data, which often provides insight into student performance that cannot be gleaned from quantitative data.  The introduction of SLOs (student learning objectives) has made familiarity with action research a must for all teachers.

Collaborative Planning & Vertical Teaming

School districts must support vertical teaming among elementary, middle and high schools.  While this can be complicated, it allows teachers to stay current on what skills their students need to be successful at the next level.  Principals will have to balance the individual planning needs of teachers, while also engaging them in the value-laden process of collaborative planning and vertical teaming.

School-based Mini-Sessions

Staff members often have skills or training in areas that might not fit in neatly with school-wide initiatives.  It is important to give these staff members a forum for sharing their knowledge.  Technology, classroom management, school climate, teacher morale and an array of other topics can be covered by offering mini-sessions throughout the school year.

By actively seeking out teachers and by understanding their strengths, school leaders can “recruit” more staff members into the collective intelligence of their school.  Mini-sessions can be offered before and after the school day.  As optional, or alternative staff development, they give the teachers choice in the scope and depth of their involvement.  The “edcamp” approach is another vehicle for capitalizing on the strengths of your teachers.

District-wide Initiatives

Most school leaders understand that district-wide initiatives often come with mandatory staff development for their teachers.  School leaders need to stay current on what is coming from the district level to avoid overloading the staff development plates of teachers.  That means sometimes they will have to balance the needs of their school with the needs of the district.  However, circumstances may also provide opportunities for schools to combine their staff development efforts with the district.

Conclusion

The NSDC standards provide a structure that school leaders can use to meet the diverse needs of their teachers.  School-based staff development in the 21st century requires non-traditional thinking.  While this requires organization and planning, it is ultimately worthwhile, productive and empowering.  The development of a professional learning community requires meaningful interaction and engagement on the part of teachers.  Differentiating school-based staff development may serve as a catalyst toward those efforts.

References

Gabriel, J. G. (2005). How to thrive as a teacher leader. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Goodnough, K. (2005). Fostering teacher learning through collaborative inquiry. The Clearing House, 79 (2), 88-92.

Hannon, S. M. (2003). Building a better staff. School Library Journal, 49 (2), 4-5.

Morrow, L. M. (2003). Make professional development a priority. Reading Today, 21 (1), 6-7.

Rutherford, P. (2006). Leading the learning. Leadership, 36 (1), 22-26.

Sawchuk, S. (2007). Groups endorse peer driven, job embedded development. Education Daily, 40 (196), 2.

Book Review-The School Improvement Planning Handbook

The School Improvement Planning Handbook:  Getting Focused for Turnaround and Transition. Daniel L. Duke, Marsha Carr, and William Sterrett. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013, 287 pages.

The school improvement process can seem daunting to even the most seasoned administrator.  Many school districts are focusing on turning struggling schools toward increased achievement.  However, deciding where to start, what to include, and how to address the needs of a school community remains extremely challenging.

So, how should school leaders approach the improvement process and how do we turn schools around? The authors of The School Improvement Planning Handbook provide readers with a framework for developing specific strategies that may pave the way for success.

The authors offer a structured approach to targeting the key elements in a school improvement plan. They note that, “[s]uccessful school improvement plans are not merely the private product of savvy principals. They are the result of a number of carefully executed steps, a good deal of teamwork, and lots of open and honest reflection.”

While the book is much more than a “handbook,” its handbook format makes it very user-friendly. Section one takes the reader through the seven steps to good planning, assists school leaders in finding their focus, and offers suggestions on how to avoid the many pitfalls faced by school improvement planners. Section two uses several scenarios to demonstrate how school leaders can use research-based strategies to focus on challenges in reading, math, school culture, teacher performance, ELL students, at-risk students, attendance, and the achievement gap. The third and final section takes a more in-depth look at comprehensive school reform. The authors provide guidance on effective turnaround planning, sustaining improvement, and reaching the ultimate goal of educational excellence.

The School Improvement Planning Handbook is ideal for principals looking to invigorate the improvement process, or for any school leader interested in developing a “living” school improvement plan. New principals should find the seven-step process described in section one as an excellent guide for structuring a comprehensive plan. The authors intended their book to be “a practical book for practitioners.” Their focus on real-life examples and research-based best practices makes it just that.

This article, written by Christopher Wooleyhand, was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Principal magazine. Copyright 2014 National Association of Elementary School Principals. All Rights Reserved.

https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/Wooleyhand_MA14.pdf