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!

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.

Thanks PLN!

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect.  I am lucky to have a wonderful wife and two great children.  I remind myself not to take that for granted.  No matter what challenges life may bring, your family is always there for you.

On a professional level, I am thankful for many of the great educators and colleagues I have met through Twitter.  Thanks to…

@Jonharper70bd for becoming an inspiring writer/blogger whose posts are elegant and poignant.

@RunnerBliss @KNESconnoisseur and @jaimer9578 for motivating me to become a better runner.

@WalterReap @lindamcToth and @rachelamstutz for making #mdeschat a successful professional development tool.

@psikeffer @MrCsajko @janercooper @Ms_Stover @missreed  and @Grade3withMissB for always adding great insight to the #mdeschat conversation.

@JessMuonio and @LTaylorELA for sending out tweets that make me laugh.

@buttercup01em and @MrsToal05 for using Twitter to connect with our school community.

@RHLeeESAACPS teachers who have embraced Twitter to connect with parents.

@PrincipalDerby @RegAMF42 and @MrMoxley for setting such a great example for how social media can enhance communication with parents and colleagues and also for their green school efforts and advocacy.

@nlattimore for being such an inspiring leader and Ravens fan!

and, finally…

to @ppw78 for her partnership and unwavering support!

I have certainly missed many others who make me a better person and educator.  Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to help me grow.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving, see you on Twitter!

Tips for successful parent-teacher conferences

November is parent/teacher conference month in many school districts across the United States.  Conferences give teachers the opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting with parents and discuss student progress from the first quarter of the school year.  What should teachers remember as they prepare for conferences?  What should parents expect to learn from their conference?  I asked several principal colleagues to share their sage advice.

What is your best piece of advice for teachers as they prepare for conferences? 

Try to hear your message through the ears and hearts of the parents.  Parents send us their very best and whatever you are saying about their child you are saying about them, too. Be honest, be respectful, be kind. – Pat Keffer @psikeffer

Start with one positive, even if it seems like a stretch.  Listen to their concerns, but keep them on track. – Donna Usewick @dsusewick

Always start with a positive and don’t overwhelm parents with constructive feedback.  Pick a few things the student needs to work on (the big rocks) and focus on those items. Also, try to be specific about what they can do to positively influence the change needed. It is also helpful to provide some information about major curricular shifts within the Maryland College and Career Ready standards. – Jason Otte  @fishingfan24

I encourage teachers to have a written plan for what they want to share and be consistent with all parents – share something positive (a snapshot of their child during the school day), areas of concern, how the parent can provide support at home, and offer an opportunity for questions.  Student work should also be available for the parent to review.  Above all, it is important for the teacher to be positive and engage the parents as partners in their child’s education. – Sue Myers @SueMyers1984

Come prepared—jot down notes before the conference about the child that include positives and opportunities for growth.  While we want to celebrate all students’ successes and special traits, we want to encourage growth in all students.  Providing parents with specific strategies and areas to focus on supports student learning and pulls parents into the magic of learning. – Rachel Amstutz @rachelamstutz

Be prepared.  Make sure you know the student themselves, not just the work they do.  Rehearse what you are going to share about school wide initiatives. -Amanda Salveron @APACSalveron

What should parents expect to learn from their conference with the teacher?

Parents should understand the strengths of their child as well as the areas of need…academically and socially, and specifically how the parents can help and support. This would require an understanding of the expectations that the teacher has for the child and class, again, academically and socially. – Pat Keffer @psikeffer

Parents should have a good overall picture of progress.  Teachers need to make sure that parents know that this is 10 or 15 minute conversation and that constant communication is the key. – Donna Usewick @dsusewick

It would be my hope that parents would walk away feeling positive, with a better understanding of what specifically their child needs to work on, as well as some information about major educational shifts that could impact their child. – Jason Otte @fishingfan24

Parents should expect to learn their child’s current skill level in all academic areas as well as specific strengths and next steps.  Expect to leave with strategies to begin using immediately at home to help move your child to the next level! –Rachel Amstutz @rachelamstutz

Parents should learn about what the teacher is doing to meet the needs of their individual student.  They should also learn how they can be supportive of their student at home. – Amanda Salveron @APACSalveron

Conferences can be a stressful event for parents.  Here are some final tips to help reduce anxiety as parents prepare for their conference:

• Ask your child if there is anything that s/he would like you to discuss with the teacher
• Jot down notes on what you would like to discuss at the conference
• Arrive promptly or a few minutes early
• Begin with positive comments about the teacher or classroom
• Be open-minded to suggestions from the teacher
• Take notes about what is discussed to share with your child
• Express appreciation for the conference
• Keep to the allotted amount of time

 

Thanks to my awesome PLN for providing great advice about parent-teacher conferences!

 

An ineffective way to look at teachers

Liz Bowie’s recent reporting on Maryland’s teacher evaluation system (Where ineffective teachers are found, November 2, 2014) raises many questions.  Bowie’s investigative report contains several quotes from Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.  The NCTQ is a Washington think tank with a clear political agenda that is anti-teacher and highly critical of teacher education programs across the United States.  Their advisory committee includes Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, two former school system czars who share a dislike for teachers, principals, and their unions.

Jacobs questions the expertise of school leaders by suggesting that they are unwilling to have “difficult conversations” with ineffective teachers.  She implies that school leaders have not been trained to assess teachers and are not asked to be instructional leaders.  Bowie’s report ends by stating that economists believe that the percentage of ineffective teachers should be somewhere between 15–20 percent.

Liz Bowie’s article leaves the reader believing that Maryland’s teacher rating system is insufficient and that there are many ineffective teachers out there who are being rated higher than they deserve.  The article also suggests that Maryland principals are to blame.  While few educators or administrators believe that the current teacher evaluation system is perfect, many believe in the need for accountability.  Teachers and principals understand the focus on student performance and its connection to evaluation.

Several states have struggled to develop fair, value-added measures to quantify a profession that is part art and part science.  Maryland will continue to refine its teacher evaluation model and its school districts will adjust accordingly.  Hopefully, Maryland’s education system will never be run by economists.  I would be uneasy working in a state or school district that considers 15-20 percent an acceptable number for ineffective teachers.

Economists and meteorologists have similar records of success when it comes to forecasting. School leaders cannot afford to use guesswork when developing highly effective teachers.  They do not think about percentages, they think about people.  Great principals support and develop great teachers.  They also spend time counseling ineffective teachers out of the profession.  That alone accounts for the low percentage of ineffective teachers in the profession.

What percentage of ineffective teachers is acceptable?  The answer has to be zero.  Try the same question with other professions.  Air traffic controllers?  Physicians?  News reporters? Politicians? Police officers?  Rather than questioning whether three percent is too low, we should be working to make sure that no ineffective teacher ever stands in front of our children.

An edited version of this post appeared in the Baltimore Sun’s Readers Respond section on November 5, 2014, all rights reserved.

http://bsun.md/189vtrN

Isn’t it time for an elementary TOY, Maryland?

According to educationbug.org, there are 1,424 public schools in the state of Maryland.  More than half (866/60%) of those schools are elementary level.  With a little investigating at localschooldirectory.com one can discover that there are 33,000 elementary teachers (K-5) in Maryland and 24,544 secondary teachers.

The question I have is, if there are nearly ten thousand more elementary teachers in Maryland than secondary teachers, why has there only been one elementary level Maryland Teacher of the Year in the last eleven years?  This puzzling pattern is not just a state issue, but a local district issue as well.  I can’t remember the last time an elementary teacher won the county teacher of the year award in my district.

I am not suggesting that there is some kind of nefarious plot against elementary teachers, but there may be something as deeply disturbing afoot.  Have elementary teachers become the Rodney Dangerfield’s of education?  Is there a lack of respect for what elementary teachers do?  Are secondary teachers selected more often because they tend to specialize in specific content areas?  I have more questions than answers, but I am hoping that respect is not the reason.

I have great admiration for what middle and high school teachers accomplish every year.  They make an impact on the lives of students that often determines the direction they will take as young adults.  Yet, no one can tell me that their accomplishments are more meaningful or important than what elementary teachers do.

I get the sense that the people who sit on these selection committees think elementary teachers spend their days wiping noses and tying shoes.  While our teachers do those things gladly, they also provide innovative instruction in science, technology, reading, math and many other areas.  Elementary teachers form the foundation that middle schools and high schools build on.  Without that foundation, our educational system would crumble.

I am hopeful that selection committees across Maryland (and other states) will be diligent in evaluating candidates fairly.  Fairness starts with giving equal weight to the level that candidates represent.  Being a middle or high school teacher should not give one an advantage over elementary level candidates.  Perhaps members of the selection committees should spend a little time in an elementary school.  If they are brave enough to, it won’t be long before this conspicuous disparity is rectified.

The Supportive Role of Pupil Personnel Workers

One of my favorite educators, Debbie Wooleyhand, is guest hosting #mdeschat this Thursday.  I interviewed her from the other end of our couch to find out more about the role of pupil personnel workers.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a wife and mother of two children, one in college @LukeWooleyhand and one a senior in high school (not into social media).  I have worked in the same school system for 32 years and graduated high school from that same school system.  I started as a kindergarten teacher and worked in various positions leading me to the position of coordinator of pupil personnel.  The one constant throughout my career has been my passion to support families to ensure student success, especially our youngest learners.

As coordinator for pupil personnel services in a large school district, what is your mission and vision related to supporting schools?

The vision of the department of pupil personnel is to promote safety, equity, and academic achievement by building bridges between the home, the school and the community.

Our mission is to motivate, prepare and empower all students to become successful, contributing citizens.

What are the key skills pupil personnel workers need today?

Pupil personnel workers (PPW) serve a unique role. They are social workers and truant officers.Given the challenges many families face, PPWs must be able to collaborate with school leaders, agencies, institutions and parents because student needs must be met by the home, school and community.  Key abilities of PPWs include effective interpersonal communication skills, as well as knowledge of federal, state, and local policies and procedures.  PPWs must conscientiously fulfill professional commitments made to students, parents, school staff, and other colleagues and exhibit values that support the achievement of all students.

How do pupil personnel workers address students and families with attendance concerns?

PPWs serve as members of a school-based team that discusses various student issues including attendance.  While schools take a proactive approach to attendance concerns, the PPW becomes involved when the school has exhausted options.  PPWs typically conference with the student and parent to identify causes of excessive absences.  We can refer cases to the State’s Attorney’s Office and/or the Department of Juvenile Services.  We work with school staff to identify the root causes of excessive absences and put a plan in place to encourage daily attendance.  Ultimately, the PPW can file criminal charges against parents for failure to send their child(ren) to school.

What are some of the responsibilities that fall under your office?

The Office of Pupil Personnel processes special enrollments involving custody issues such as kinship or hardship, which is when a child is living with someone other than a parent or legal guardian.  We also address attendance concerns, handle residency investigations, enroll students experiencing homelessness, facilitate section 504 services, and process out-of-area transfer requests.

How do you see the role of pupil personnel worker changing in the future?

Currently, PPWs are assigned to specific schools. Given the increasing complexity of student enrollment and mobility of families, we are moving toward a team approach in which PPWs are assigned to a group of schools instead of specific schools.  For example, a cluster of schools made up of a high school, 2 middle schools and 6-8 elementary schools would be able to access a team of PPWs to assist with residency, custody, attendance and homeless enrollment. By working as a team, schools will have access to a group of individuals with a set of skills and knowledge of the families.  This should greatly increase their ability to step in and provide assistance.

Thanks, Debbie, your vision for pupil personnel services should mean great things for our schools!

Why Should Educators Blog?

I began blogging a year ago today. This is my 70th post in a calendar year. I was never the type to keep a journal. When I was eleven years old I was given a diary for Christmas from my mother. I dutifully wrote in that diary for six weeks, then my entries trailed off to nothing. Maybe it’s a guy thing. We’re just not a reflective gender. Nevertheless, I started writing Common Sense School Leadership on October 7, 2013.

For me, Twitter was the “gateway” from micro-blogging to full blown blogging. The connections and conversations I had with educators across the globe motivated me to better understand the issues that connect us all. Twitter helped me find my voice. It is a great venue for trying out ideas with an audience that is generally supportive and interested in a meaningful dialogue.

There are thousands of blogs out there. Mine is nothing special. So, why bother? Why spend the time writing about issues in education? Here are three reasons you might want to consider blogging:

1. To grow

Blogging makes you think deeply about your views and beliefs. Who knows how many people will read your blog? While we may hope that others find our musings at least minimally interesting, our growth comes through the writing process. The more you write about topics that you are passionate about, the more you understand yourself.

2. To connect with others

The opportunities to connect with colleagues are often limited by our schedules. How often do you have time to discuss important educational issues with others? Blogging (and reading others’ blogs) expands your learning circle. When you share your blog with others, you meet people from all over the world. The only thing you have to do is dedicate your time, energy, and willingness to the process.

3. To learn

The concept of professional learning is being redefined. It’s no longer about attending an “event.” Blogging cuts out the middle man. It gives you direct access to innovative thinkers and doers. You no longer have to wait for someone’s book to come out or for a great speaker to present at your favorite annual conference. Many blogs focus on the practical aspects of our profession. This means that you can get tips, suggestions, and ideas in real time, when you need them- no waiting necessary.

So, what’s keeping you from blogging? Not enough time? That’s the one thing no one can give you more of. Blogging can be done any time of the day. You just have to decide it’s worth it. You have value. You have great ideas. We need to hear them. Give it a try!

Six Tips for Growing Good Readers

I wrote following article for Forest of the Rain Productions this week (www.forestoftheraineducation.weebly.com)

In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report that served as the basis for reading instruction across the United States.  Many NCLB initiatives used the Panel’s report to justify a very narrow definition of reading instruction.  Their findings suggested that the best approaches to reading incorporate:

  • Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
  • Systematic phonics instruction
  • Methods to improve fluency
  • Ways to enhance comprehension

Fourteen years later, as we prepare for the Common Core era, schools are hopefully shifting their focus to a broader and more comprehensive view of reading instruction.  Something significant has been lost with recent school reform efforts.  The creation of formulaic reading programs has moved schools away from fostering a lovefor learning in their students.

Before you can interest a child in unlocking the sounds associated with letters, you must at least light a candle of interest.  If you want children to become fluent readers who also comprehend, then show them how reading unlocks the world.  Schools wishing to elevate student success should encourage parents and teachers to consider the following tips on growing good readers:

1.      Talk to them

Vocabulary development and reading skills are linked processes.  The more you read, the better your vocabulary, the more you engage in conversation, the better you’ll be able to read.  Busy parents must take the time to talk with their children about a range of subjects.  Teachers must give their students opportunities to talk with their classmates.  While we can all appreciate the value of peace and quiet, our children will become better readers from ample opportunities to talk.

2.      Read to them

Oral comprehension supports the growth of independent reading skills.  Parents of young children should be reading to them every night.  Teachers should build read-alouds and books on tape into their daily instruction.  Older students also benefit from listening to others read.  You can turn the table on them by having students record themselves for others to listen to.

3.      Model good reading

Children tend to value what the adults in their lives show enthusiasm for.  If you want your child to be a reader, you have to model it.  Talk to them about the books you are reading.  Share your excitement about your favorite genre.  Have a quiet reading time in your home or classroom where everyone is reading at the same time.  Involve the extended family in sharing their reading interests.  Invite guest readers to the classroom to share their love for reading.

4.      Ask Questions

Questioning is the starting point for reading comprehension.  Good readers are constantly asking questions as they read.  Young readers should be encouraged to share what they are thinking as they are reading.  Reinforce questioning before, during, and after reading.  As children improve their questioning skills, raise the level from explicit to implicit questioning.

5.      Take them places

Background knowledge is vital for growing good readers.  Every trip a parent takes their child on, no matter how long or short, should involve literacy moments.  Trips to the store, to the park, or to the gas station can all provide teachable moments for parents.  Point out signs, letters, and numbers as you travel.  Have your child help you with the grocery list.  They can “read” it to you as you shop.  Children need to see the connection between reading and the real world.  The more background knowledge a child has, the better prepared they’ll be when the demands of reading get harder.

6.      Go to the library

You can never expose a child to too many books.  Our public libraries are tremendous resources for parents and teachers.  Many have very liberal policies when it comes to checking books out.  Your local library probably sponsors a summer reading program and many offer homework help for school-aged children.  In hard economic times, public libraries offer parents affordable and often free resources for growing young readers.

Good readers become great readers through a process that is part art and part science.  While phonemic awareness and phonics should be components of good reading instruction, we must remember to build a love for reading in our students.  A love for reading blooms in students who are exposed to a variety of literature using methods that actively engage them.

Let’s think of it this way:  the stem, leaf, roots, and flower are the phonics/phonemics of reading, the love for reading comes from the soil, sun, and water we supply.  If we provide the best of both for our students, they will surely become lifelong readers.