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

Meet Kelly Reider, English Language Leader

reiderk

Kelly Reider will guest host #mdeschat this Thursday, April 3rd at 9PM EST.  She is the Coordinator for English Language Acquisition and the International Student Services Office for Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland.  Kelly is passionate about supporting schools in their efforts at meeting the needs of English learners.  We sat down with her for a Q&A on current issues impacting the ESL field.

Tell us about yourself.

This is the start of my 21st year in education.  I have two teenage sons, an 8th grader and a high school senior!  Our office is responsible for registering international students, screening students for English language services, writing curriculum, and providing professional development.  In addition, we supervise English Language Acquisition teachers, conduct local and state language assessments, and coordinate interpretation and translation services.  Prior to AACPS, I taught in Onslow County, North Carolina as well as Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, Maryland.  I’ve been an ESL teacher, elementary classroom teacher, professional development specialist, and elementary assistant principal along the way.

The English language acquisition field comes with a plethora of acronyms (ESOL, ESL, ELA, TESL, TSOL, ELL etc.).  Can you clarify some of the terms and let our readers know which are politically correct?  

We certainly like our share of acronyms!  ESOL and ESL are used pretty interchangeably.  Both refer to instructional programs for English learners.  When you add the “T”, this usually means “teachers” and refers to the professional groups.  English language acquisition (ELA) and English language development (ELD) can refer to instructional programs, but they also refer to the field of research and science behind the process of acquiring/developing language.  English learner (EL) is the most current term used to refer to the student.  Many still use English language learner (ELL) as well.  R-ELL/R-EL refer to “re-classified” students who have exited the instructional program and are monitored for two years.  No English Proficiency (NEP) is a dated acronym that is not used very often these days.

What is the role of the ELA teacher in your district?

We have been working for the past two years to redefine the role of the ELA teacher.  In the past, ELA (then ESOL for us) teachers functioned more as an instructional support.  The ELA teacher is now expected to take on the role of a language acquisition teacher who has the primary responsibility of delivering and assessing the ELA approved curricula.  ELA is a content area, just like science, math and language arts.  Our ELA teachers are also expected to be language development experts who are a resource for the language development for ALL students.

What are some of the challenges that a large district faces in meeting the needs of English language learners?

Most school systems struggle with the allocation of staffing and other resources across a variety of programs and initiatives.  As our English learner enrollment continues to grow quickly (approximately 40% over the past 4 years), we have not been able to maintain a student-teacher ratio that can meet the wide variety of educational needs of our students.  We continuously work to improve our curricula and pedagogy to make the best use of every minute we have to teach students.

Over the past year, our system has experienced a sizeable increase in the number of English learners enrolling with significantly interrupted formal education and limited native language literacy.  The number of students over 16 years old enrolling as 9th graders has more than tripled in the past 4 years. Many of these students enter school with limited academic background.  Many are arriving as unaccompanied minors who are also working to support themselves while attending school. Balancing the various needs of students, graduation requirements, mandated assessments, and the social-emotional arena can be quite overwhelming for schools.

Equally important is the need to build every teacher’s capacity for providing the best instruction for English learners.  Language development needs to take place all day, every day in order for us to close the academic language gap.  Coordinating language development with the other district initiatives competing for teachers’ time and attention is an ongoing challenge.  We are continually looking for new ways to provide professional development to as many teachers as possible.  It is important that every teacher is prepared to differentiate for language and make content accessible to all students.

What instructional tips do you have for classroom teachers with ELL students?

Many teachers are uncomfortable with newcomers and feel helpless when the student does not understand any English.  Just remember this is temporary.  The most important thing is to include the students and insist that they remain engaged and involved.  Language is developed through listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  While students may need a bit of time to watch and take things in, it is important for the student to be engaged and active.  Using visuals, providing organizers, restating in simplified language, and hands-on learning are all helpful.  I encourage all teachers to use their English language acquisition teacher as a resource to review the students’ language proficiency data and discuss what are appropriate developmental expectations and goals.

Is there one book you would suggest we read to better understand the important issues in English language acquisition?

There are quite a few depending on the topic – cultural awareness, instruction, language development…..  The best I’ve found for practical instruction is “Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners – A Guide for K-12 Teachers” by Shelley Fairbain and Stephaney Jones-Vo.  This book looks at instruction by proficiency levels in a very practical way.

Thanks, Kelly!  We appreciate your efforts in supporting schools with their English learner needs.  Kelly can be followed on Twitter @reiderkelly.

Five Steps to Expanding Your PLN on Twitter

1.      First you have to join.

Obviously, joining Twitter is the first step towards expanding your personal/professional learning network (PLN).  What’s not so obvious, however, is that “how” you start is also important.  Don’t be an egg.  Put a picture in your profile.  Avatars are fine, but educators like to see the actual person they might follow, so take a deep breath and choose a picture you like.  Tell us a little bit about yourself in your profile.  Who are you?  What are your passions?  Why are you on Twitter?  A good picture and a nice profile are enough for the average tweep (Twitter user) who’s trying to decide who to follow.

2.     Follow People

Twitter is ultimately about having conversations.  In order to have conversations, you have to follow people.  One of the slightly annoying things about signing up for Twitter is that it automatically directs you to follow people.  Bypass that part and follow people when you are ready.  Most people start out following people they know.  That’s natural because you already have a rapport and comfort level with people you know.  The value of Twitter, however, is how it can connect you to people all over the world.

A good goal for someone new to Twitter is to follow 100 people.  Follow people who follow people you respect.  It’s okay if you don’t know them.  Also, follow people back.  Your “follower” to “following” ratio should be close to 1:1.  People who only follow back a small percentage of their followers aren’t truly interested in a conversation.  There are some strange folks out there, however, so don’t feel obligated to follow back everyone.

3.     Tweet and Re-tweet

If you don’t tweet are you really on Twitter?  Sure, Twitter can be used as a one way tool to gain information, but everyone has something they can share.  If you aren’t ready to send an “original” tweet, then just retweet the stuff you like.  The more you retweet, the more likely you are to meet new people.  It’s like starting the first conversation at a cocktail party.  Once you start tweeting regularly you’ll begin to see the value of Twitter as a learning tool.

4.     Lurk in a Chat

Twitter chats are amazing opportunities to learn from your PLN.  Most folks who are new to Twitter will find chats to be a little overwhelming and fast-moving.  Start out by lurking in a chat.  Go under the hashtag (#) for any chat you’re interested in and just follow the conversation.

For a list of educational chats see this link:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AiftIdjCeWSXdDRLRzNsVktUUGJpRWJhdUlWLS1Genc#gid=0

5.     Participate in a Chat

When you’re ready, join in on a chat.  Remember to include the hashtag in your tweet, otherwise only those who follow you will be able to read it.  Twitter chats almost always lead to more followers.  They are great ways to connect with people who share similar interests.  Many chats use a Q1-A1 format.  This means the moderator numbers their questions.  When you respond, use the letter “A” and the corresponding question number.  For example:

Q1.  How has Twitter expanded your learning? #mdeschat
A1.  By connecting me with great educators all over the globe. #mdeschat

Why Twitter?

Twitter helps you find your professional voice.  By sharing your views, and listening to others, you begin to develop a coherent professional voice.  You gain confidence in yourself and refine your views.  Most of us work hard all day, but we rarely find the time to discuss our craft with others.  Educators on Twitter are very supportive of their PLN colleagues.  The greatest value of Twitter is that it broadens your professional knowledge for free!  Who wouldn’t want to have access to some of the greatest minds in their profession?  Go out and find them on Twitter.  You won’t be disappointed.

Any discussion on Twitter would be incomplete without referring to one of the greatest sources of information for educators.  Visit Cybraryman’s Twitter page for all of the information you’ll ever need:

http://www.cybraryman.com/twitter.html

Things I Forgot After 13 Years Away from the Classroom

This is a guest blog by veteran educator, Deborah Wooleyhand.

I was recently asked to cover a class at a local elementary school during state testing.  The teacher I substituted for was administering the assessment to a student with one/one accommodations.  I quickly agreed.  How hard could it be?  I was a kindergarten teacher for 18 years, so covering a class for a few hours would be no problem.

I have been out of the classroom for 13 years.  I forgot how children like to push the limit with a sub, even if you are married to the principal.  I forgot how fast a 5 year old can move, even when his shoes are untied.  I forgot how long it takes to get every shoe tied.  I forgot their shoes don’t remain tied for very long, even when you double-knot them.  I forgot that when one student wants a drink, suddenly the entire class is parched.  There is a lot I forgot while sitting behind a desk at district headquarters.

I also forgot that:

  • Children like routines and any disruption to their schedule matters.  The reality is no matter how detailed the lesson plan is, it cannot possibly capture all the important facts about each student in the class and it can’t explain how each routine is carried out. So when the schedule changes to accommodate testing and staff members are pulled to assist with testing, it matters.
  • Children have challenging behaviors, but they don’t mean to be challenging.  The schedule is different and they are trying to cope. 
  • Children love and are protective of their teachers.  They are happy to have a sub as long as they know their real teacher is okay and most importantly, coming back.

As you can see, there is a lot I forgot during my 13 year absence from the classroom.  Mostly, I forgot about the impact of decisions made in an office far from any school on the children in that school.  Decisions are made about testing, curriculum, and instructional methods, but we need to be mindful of how those decisions impact the daily operation of the school and ultimately the classroom.  We need to be reminded about the challenges teachers face on a daily basis as they juggle the demands of the curriculum with the needs of students and concerns of parents.

If, like me, you have been away from the classroom for a while, I encourage you to re-connect with the schools in your district.  Find a way to spend some meaningful time working with children in a classroom.  No matter what your current role is, the experience will remind you of why you do what you do.  I am sure that when you go to work the next day, you will have a renewed sense of purpose because you will have been reminded of how your position impacts the lives of children.  That is something none of us should forget.

Debbie Wooleyhand is an experienced pupil personnel worker for a large Maryland school district.  She can be followed on Twitter @ppw78.

Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity?

President Barack Obama recently announced a new initiative called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity.  The aims of the program are admirable.  The President wants to support states and districts in identifying and closing educational opportunity and achievement gaps (http://www.ed.gov/racetothetop-equity-opportunity).  The President, like many politicians and educators, recognizes that we need to do more to ensure that all students have access to rigorous coursework, positive school climates, equitable discipline policies, and a clear, supportive road to college and career readiness.

The President’s plan calls for $300 million in competitive grants for states that agree to enhance their data systems and develop comprehensive strategies to address achievement gaps.  The states would have to use their funds to strengthen teaching and school leadership.  The funds would also be used to attract and retain more effective teachers in high-need schools.  Additionally, the plan requires states to utilize fair formulas for the distribution of funds to schools.

So far, so good, although one could argue that incentivizing states is not the best way to reform schools.  The competitive grant process also has its detractors.  Will states rush to comply with the guidelines and begin implementing effective strategies to eliminate the achievement gap?  If they learned any lesson from the original Race to the Top efforts, they may wait a while before jumping for the carrot.

The President should be applauded for highlighting the need for creative solutions to eliminating the achievement gap.  If his plan works it will lead to the creation of model programs that other states and districts can look to for solutions.  Three hundred million dollars sounds like a solid investment towards that effort, but is it?  When you realize that there are over 11 million school-age children living in poverty in the United States (2011, US Census Report), the investment begins to look a little light.  The President’s proposal provides about $27.00 for every child living in poverty in the US.

Of course, the President’s plan does not aim to help all children.  It will only affect the children in states and districts that are willing to jump through a series of complex and rigid hoops.  The states with savvy policy makers and skilled grant writers will be at a significant advantage.  Meanwhile, the 11 million students living in poverty will see little or no change to their schools, at least not for some time.

No one should scoff at a $300 million dollar investment in education.  We should be grateful for every dollar that goes toward the future of our children.  Yet, somehow we continue to underfund the most important aspect of American culture, our schools.  How about a real effort toward strengthening our public community schools?  Not just some, but all of them.  While we are experimenting with plans like the President’s, what’s happening to the rest of our students?

The President’s plan specifically mentions that no child should suffer because of their wealth, home language, or zip code.  Unfortunately, his plan fails to address that goal for all students.  It falls short because it won’t impact enough students in a timely manner.  Twenty-seven dollars per child in poverty just won’t do that.  Our students deserve better before it’s too late.

Meet Erin Simpson, NDP

Erin Simpson, principal at Overlook Elementary in Wadsworth, Ohio, will serve as a guest host for #mdeschat on Thursday, March 6th at 9 p.m. ET.  Erin is a 2012 National Distinguished Principal.  She was nominated for the award by a fourth grade teacher who stated, “I have been in this building for 11 years and I have never had a principal who has had such a good rapport with kids.  She brings the most out of every student and every teacher and every parent involved with the school.”  We sat down with Erin to find out what’s happening in Ohio.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a very proud mom to two elementary age daughters, a first grader and fourth grader.  This is my ninth year as a building principal, sixth in my current building. Prior to becoming a principal in Wadsworth, I taught in a neighboring district for eight years. I live in the community in which I work and love the community pride in our school district.  Every day I am very proud to be a Wadsworth Grizzly!

You are a National Distinguished Principal.  What was that experience like for you?

Being named a Distinguished Elementary Principal by our State Association, OAESA, and a National Distinguished Principal by NAESP was humbling.  The NDP celebration in Washington, D.C. was an amazing weekend to highlight our profession and I was so proud to be included with and meet all of the other honorees.  I made connections that will last a lifetime and I was proud of the honors bestowed upon our profession.  I truly believe every principal deserves to be honored in that manner.

There are five elementary schools (K-4) in your district.  What major instructional initiatives are going on there?

Currently in our district we are transitioning in many areas. We have a new teacher and principal evaluation system in our state, OTES and OPES. We are implementing the Common Core while still tying in our previous standards because our state assessments have not yet changed.  We have new report card indicators which have changed from a performance measure to a growth measure. We are also facing a new Third Grade Reading Guarantee in Ohio and are required to retain any third grader who does not achieve a set score on the spring reading Ohio Achievement Assessment.  All of this makes for a very busy year and uncertainty in many areas.

What are the biggest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis?

My biggest challenges center around time.  I love being in classrooms, in the cafeteria, on the playground, and greeting children as they arrive each day.  These become priorities, so much of my other work takes place after school hours and I am not the best at balancing work and family time.  Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband who is also an educator!

The new evaluation system has placed demands on my time with timelines and summaries to complete.  I love the conversations that have resulted from the new system, it is just a very time intensive process. From start to finish, observations take about 3 hours between the pre and post conferences, the observation, and the write up.  Almost every morning is committed to a meeting of some type, yet I feel there are so many times we start a great conversation and then the bell rings at 8:55 a.m. and the conversation halts.  I am always looking for ways to make this better.

We are also facing large class sizes due to budget constraints over time and reductions in staff. This year my kindergarten classes have 30 students in them.  First grade is the lowest with 24 in each and the others all range between 28-30.  This is a challenge as we allocate resources and support and try to be sure that we have all our students on track so that we do not face the retention element from the Third Grade Guarantee.

How has teaching changed since you entered the profession?

The changes I have seen in teaching over my nine years in the role as principal are monumental.  The pressures on our students and teachers alike have grown immensely.  The inclusion and development of technology has advanced opportunities for students and teachers.  I can only imagine what the future of education will hold for us in ten years.  Teaching is much more focused on the individual student.   I often tell my teachers that I could be a great teacher if I returned to the classroom because I have learned so many wonderful techniques and approaches from them.

Can you describe the qualities you look for in a new teacher?

Something that I always keep in mind as we interview and hire new teachers is that a critical piece is to hire good people because they will make great employees.  I can always coach to improve instructional skills and strategies, but I can’t instill that spark or passion or love of children and commitment.  I also believe that there has to be a right fit for the school and the new teacher.  I look for the candidate who has the spark, energy and enthusiasm … the “it” I hear many people refer to.  We have a very rigorous hiring process and truly find the best candidates.  Since implementing the new process we have not had a bad hire.

What is one book every educator should read?

Wonder by R.J. Palacio should be read by every educator.  This book will make an impact on how you approach your job and every child you are blessed to be in contact with.  The theory to “Choose Kind” is one that our school has embraced and would make the world a better place if everyone embraced it as well.

Thanks, Erin!  We appreciate your involvement and commitment to the profession!

Erin Simpson can be followed on Twitter @ehuthsimpson.

It’s Testing Time, Pass the Tissues

The month of March signals the beginning of testing season for Maryland elementary schools.  It’s an annual rite of passage that takes time away from instruction, disrupts the regular schedule, brings children to tears, and produces a general fog of stress to schools across the state.  The schedule for testing in our school looks like this:

Test                                                    Grade                         Dates
MSA Reading & Math                  3rd-5th Grade              March 4-18

MSA Science                                5th Grade                     March 24-April 4

PARCC Field Test (PBA)             One 4th grade class     March 24-April 11

PARCC Field Test (EOY)             One 4th grade class     May 5-June 6

As you can see, testing will impact our school from the first week in March through the first week in June.  That’s thirteen weeks of testing.  Luckily, spring break gives our students and teachers a brief respite from the madness.

Maryland, like many other states, is in the transition from using state testing measures to using the PARCC assessment (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).  This means that while students in third through fifth grade have been taught using the Common Core State Standards this year, they will be assessed on the defunct Maryland State Curriculum.

The relevance of the data that will be collected is questionable.  We’re giving the test anyway.  I don’t think anyone can tell me why.  Well, maybe that’s not true.  We’re giving the test because Maryland accepted Race to the Top funds and the feds have threatened to withhold or ask for states to return funds if they don’t administer the tests.  No one has the courage to stop an assessment train that is careening its way down a track to nowhere.

Teachers know that assessment is important.  They use informal assessments every day to make instructional decisions about their students.  Assessments help teachers understand where their students are on the learning continuum.  State and federal tests have never provided teachers with that information.  State and federal tests have been used to judge schools, school districts, and states.  State and federal tests have been used to praise affluent schools and their communities while degrading high-poverty schools.

The late Donald Graves wrote the book Testing Is Not Teaching over 12 years ago.  It would be nice if politicians, superintendents, school leaders, teachers, and parents read it.  There is a better way for American schools to improve.  It is a way that does not value testing over people.  It is a way that includes teacher expertise in gathering relevant assessment data.  I could go on, but I have to get ready for testing.  I’m sure I have a box of tissues around here somewhere.

Leading Change in Education

The process of leading change in education is complex and challenging.  John Kotter is recognized as an expert on the topic of leadership and change.  He wrote Leading Change in 1996, which Time magazine selected as one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written.  Kotter’s work has been adopted by many graduate schools of education.

The use of business strategies when training future educational leaders can be problematic.  We should be cautious when extending the values of business to the field of education.  Not all business practices translate well to teaching and school leadership.  Schools exist to serve children and families.  We should never look at students in the proprietary way that businesses do their products.

Many would argue that the seminal work on leading change in education has yet to be written.  Until that happens, let’s consider Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change and apply it to education.  Can his business-based ideas on change leadership be translated to education?

1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency

Our children don’t have time for us to decide to act on their behalf.  Urgency should be a catalyst for the change needed in our schools.  Urgency, however, should never lead to people feeling like they have been run over.  New leaders have to assess what is truly urgent versus what can be done over time through partnering and collaboration.

2. Creating a Guiding Coalition

Team-building is an essential skill for the modern school leader.  Not much will be accomplished if stakeholders are not part of the change process.  School leaders will have to possess strong skills when assembling their team.  Unlike businesses, however, schools need to be inclusive in their team-building efforts.  Without a broad base of support, change efforts are less likely to succeed.

3.  Developing A Change Vision

For Kotter, vision is the product of an individual.  You possess the vision and then you share it.  In education, vision should be the product of collaborative efforts.  The model of a heroic leader swooping in and saving a school diminishes any prior efforts made toward improvement.  When vision is developed collaboratively it is also more comprehensive.

4.  Communicating the Vision for Buy-In

The concept of “selling” a vision is a business-like approach that leaves others out of the equation.  If we develop the vision together, then no one needs to sell it to me.  I am already in.  The more people included in the development of the vision, the more who will learn about it through word-of-mouth.  A cooperatively developed vision sells itself.

5.  Empowering Broad-based Action

Kotter’s views on empowering action blend well with current school reform efforts.  Once the vision is set, school leaders need to work to remove any of the obstacles that stand in the way of progress.  They should create structures that foster the vision while encouraging risk-taking and “no box” thinking among their teachers.

6.  Generating Short-term Wins

Short-term victories are important in education, especially when they lead to long-term wins.  School leaders should celebrate their short-term wins while continuing to articulate the long-term goals.  Celebration is even more important in education than in business.  Sometimes, celebration is the only positive our teachers experience, particularly in these times of fiscal austerity.

7.  Never Letting Up

Education is the one profession that renews itself every year.  A new school year brings with it great hope.  For schools with a clear long-term vision, the new school year is also an opportunity to continue focusing on key initiatives.  If schools are truly seeking to improve, their plans and strategies must focus on enduring goals.  “Dripping water hollows out a stone…”

8.  Incorporating Change Into the Culture

School leaders rarely stay in one place for very long.  Is the change that you are fostering dependent on you?  If you left your school today, what would continue?  These are questions you should ask yourself every time you consider new initiatives.  If the change you are seeking is dependent solely upon your leadership, then it might not be as important as you think.  Change for the sake of change undermines effective school reform efforts.  Developing a culture of change and innovation leaves your school with a natural succession plan.  Isn’t that what change leadership is all about?