Eternally Optimistic

June marks the end of my 27th year as an educator, twelve years as a teacher and fifteen as an administrator.  Even with all of those years behind me, I remain highly optimistic about the importance and impact of public education.  This optimism comes from the gift of seeing children grow every day and every school year.

It is humbling and inspiring to watch a kindergarten child go from learning to recognize the letters of the alphabet to reading grade level passages in a 10 month time span.  As our fifth graders prepare for middle school, I think about how much progress they have made during their time in elementary school.

How can one not be positive when they have the opportunity to observe first-hand all of the great things that happen in an elementary school?  I wish public school reformers and critics had the chance to see the miracles that teachers perform on a daily basis.  Educators bear all of the responsibility and rarely get the credit they deserve for the incredible job they do.  With that in mind, here is my summer wish list for teachers:

  • rest
  • family time
  • a good book (of your choosing)
  • time in the sun with your feet in the sand
  • a roller coaster ride
  • peace and quiet
  • a long walk with someone special
  • a foot massage from a professional
  • an out-of-town trip
  • a good meal cooked by someone else
  • _____________________________(add your own)

Teachers need the summer to rejuvenate and prepare for the next school year.  If you see a teacher over the summer, smile and say hello, but don’t ask them if they enjoy having their summers off.  We know they are never really “off” of work.  Tell them how much you appreciate what they do, then let them rejuvenate in peace.

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!

Will Fed Guidance on Charter Schools Bring Change?

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter of guidance last week to charter schools (see link below).  While supportive in tone, it laid out clear expectations regarding the application of civil rights laws in charter schools.  This is good news for all schools.  Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon’s letter suggests that a new level of transparency needs to be practiced by charter schools.

Charter schools have been criticized for many of their dubious practices.  The OCR letter, thankfully, addresses these concerns.  The letter included guidance in the following areas:

  • charter schools are expected to know and understand Federal civil rights laws
  • admissions procedures may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability
  • special education students cannot be excluded
  • once admitted, students with disabilities must be provided FAPE (free appropriate public education)
  • charter schools cannot ask students to waive their rights to FAPE
  • English learners must be provided the same meaningful access to admissions information
  • English learners must be provided with effective language instruction
  • charter schools must operate under local desegregation plans
  • discipline policies and enforcement must be free of discriminatory practices

It is reasonable to expect that charter schools operate under the same rules as public schools as they are funded by the public using a per-pupil expenditure formula.  The rush into the public charter business led to violations by many of these eager start-ups.  While some charter schools have been touted for their innovative practices, many of them have been operating outside the guidelines addressed in the OCR letter.

Why should anyone care about how public charter schools operate?  They should care because charter schools have been siphoning away students from their home schools and eroding communities across the country.  They have become quasi private schools by selectively choosing who gets in and who doesn’t.

The OCR’s letter is a starting point for holding public charter schools to the same expectations as all other public schools.  Enforcing civil rights laws will be another question.  Let’s hope the OCR monitors the performance of public charter schools and takes action when necessary.

http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201405-charter.pdf

The Mad Rush

The middle of May signals the start of the “mad rush” toward the last day of school.  Students, teachers, parents, and administrators are faced with fitting in all of the things that need to be done between now and the final school day.  This can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time.  Here are a few quick tips for each group that may make the coming days a little less stressful.

Students

-provide students with consistency over the final weeks
-lower their stress levels by giving them advance notice of what’s coming up
-reassure them that by the last day of school they will be ready for the next grade
-provide some closing activities that allow them to reflect on their year
-have them write letters to next year’s students giving them advice for success

Teachers

-have a clear plan for what will be taught until the last day of school
-organize your days so that you’re not left with a mountain of paperwork at the end
-start consolidating your materials and planning for next year
-take some time to reflect with your grade level on all of the successes you’ve had
-brainstorm with colleagues about how you can improve specific areas next year
-start making summer plans, it goes quickly, so make sure fun is included

Parents

-remind your child that while summer is on their mind, there is much work to be done
-keep your child’s morning and evening routines consistent
-tell your child how proud you are of their accomplishments
-plan a summer that includes fun learning opportunities
-find ways to support the school over the final weeks (volunteer, field trips etc.)

Administrators

-be an example of “calm and reason,” even if your head is spinning from all that has to be done
-provide your students and staff with a structure that keeps routines in place
-stay focused on students, even when other tasks may pull you away
-start planning for the summer and next year, both personally and professionally
-tell your students and staff how much they are appreciated before they head off

If everyone works together, the year can only end on a positive note.  Take satisfaction in knowing that your students and staff made significant growth this year.  The great part of being an educator is that you get to do it all again next year.  Just take a deep breath before you start thinking about that.

14 Ways to Promote Culturally Responsive Teaching

The Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo, commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla.  While it is a holiday that many Americans enjoy, it also inadvertently reinforces cultural stereotypes.  Let’s take the opportunity this Cinco de Mayo to think about how we can foster culturally responsive teaching in our schools and classrooms.

Eileen Whelan Ariza, author of Not for ESOL Teachers, shares the following culturally responsive teaching strategies that are based on recommendations from Brown University’s Education Alliance for Culturally Responsive Teaching:

  1. Get to know the culture of your students.
  2. Try to make home visits.
  3. Attend neighborhood and local cultural events.
  4. Use inquiry-based teaching that is culturally relevant.
  5. Scaffold for students by activating prior knowledge.
  6. Call on students regardless of English proficiency, modify your questioning strategies.
  7. Integrate multicultural views into daily instruction.
  8. Learn about diverse learning and teaching styles and culturally appropriate behaviors.
  9. Incorporate the students’ native language within class learning situations.
  10. Seek to understand parents of English learners.
  11. Use a variety of learning strategies and have high expectations for all students.
  12. Use cooperative and collaborative learning on a regular basis
  13. Aim to increase academic language proficiency, orally and in writing.
  14. Be conscious of your own ethnocentric attitudes.

Effective strategies for English learners are effective strategies for all students.  While it is impossible to be fully aware of all of the nuances associated with every culture, it is possible to care about how culture impacts teaching and learning.  Culturally responsive teachers have a natural interest in the lives of their students.  They use this interest to motivate students toward success.

Culturally responsive teachers recognize that stereotypes don’t define the children they teach.  While they recognize that stereotypes exist, they strive to learn more about the culture of their students in order to dispel the myths and clarify reality.  As with any school, or classroom, great teaching is about relationships.

So, feel free to enjoy and celebrate Cinco de Mayo today.  Just don’t forget that it’s only one small part of Mexican culture.  Maybe you can celebrate by asking your students to share a few others.

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.

Five Thoughts for Teachers Heading Into the Final Stretch

The spring holiday break is over for most of us now.  June will be here before you know it.  As you prepare for the remaining days of the school year, here are five things to consider when planning for instruction.

1.  Revisit Your Expectations

The final weeks of the school year can be the most challenging.  Treat the next week like the first week of school.  Have an honest discussion with students about classroom routines, behaviors, and procedures.  Make it fun and collaborative and you will be able to quickly get back into the flow.

2.  Check the Standards

Spend some time with your grade level teammates looking at the progress that your students have made toward the standards.  Much can be done and much progress can be made by students over the last quarter of the year.  Look at the formative and summative data that you have collected.  Are there instructional trends that will impact how and what you teach?  Don’t forget to speak with any and all resource teachers for support and ideas.

3.  Make a Plan

Once you have identified the instructional areas that you need to focus on, make a plan that will take you through the end of the year.  That plan should include student-specific and content-specific goals.  It is also a good idea to talk with teachers in the next grade up.  If you’re a second grade teacher, ask the third grade teachers what skills their students need to be successful next year.

4.  Set Your Students Free

No, I am not suggesting a free-for-all, but the final weeks of the school year are a great opportunity to shift the focus to student-owned learning.  Getting students actively involved in the learning process reduces many of the negative behaviors we see in the latter part of the year.  Let the students do the teaching, capitalize on their creativity, go outside for some hands-on learning, find as many ways as you can to promote “student talk” over “teacher talk.”

5.  Have Fun

Maya Angelou said it best, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What have you done, or will you do, that your students will remember for years to come?  If you don’t have an answer, that’s okay. You have plenty of time left.  Plan a fun field trip, invite a guest speaker in, collaborate on an activity with a colleague in another grade.  Ask your students what they’d like to do.  You’re sure to get some creative answers.  Sometimes it’s the simplest things that help students remember how you made them feel.  Good luck!

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