“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…” -Teddy Roosevelt

I began teaching 36 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West Indies.  Those years on the tiny island nation of St. Kitts were a catalyst for a fun and rewarding career.  I am grateful to the students, families, staff, and colleagues I have known over the years.  I have learned so much from everyone.

I’m retiring at the end of this month.  I will not be leaving the profession, although I am hoping to get some rest in July.  In August, I will take over as the Executive Director of MAESP.  I am excited about this opportunity and hope my colleagues will be active in attending and presenting at local, state, and national conferences.  The Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals needs your involvement.

Being a principal is hard and is not getting any easier.  Hope, however, is not lost.  It is not lost because there are still so many passionate school leaders who go to work every day with a singular focus on doing what is right for children.  No one knows your school better than you.  You are the men and women in the arena.  While there are many critics outside the school building, you are the ones who know what is best for your schools.  Never let anyone try to define you or your school unless they are willing to get in the arena with you.

Five things I am looking forward to:

  • More time for myself
  • More time with my family
  • Less emails to read
  • More books to read
  • Supporting school leaders in my new role

I am leaving the role of elementary principal behind, but it will never leave me.  It has been my identity for the past 18 years.  I am letting it go with a little trepidation, but mostly with excitement about what’s to come.  It’s time to reinvent myself.  Let’s go!

Leading for the early years

The following, co-written with Judith Walker, appears in the March/April 2022 edition of Principal magazine.

Over the last 20 years, local, state, and federal officials have gradually come to recognize that early childhood education matters. In 2018, Congress passed a bipartisan spending bill that increased funding for early childhood education to the tune of $2.4 billion, and new federal funding proposals promise to create universal access to pre-K throughout the country. Such funding allows states to expand access to early learning, support families, and invest in the early childhood education workforce.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has encouraged states to leverage the increase in federal funding by adding their own supplementary investments. And NAESP and the National P-3 Center at the University of Colorado Denver have partnered to support and advise school leaders about the structures and competencies needed to promote quality early learning programs. This work is a great starting point for school leaders who are striving to create highly effective teaching and learning programs in the early grades and to develop cohesive, equitable strategies focused on our youngest learners.

NAEYC partnered with NAESP in 2005 to create a resource promoting high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8, by connecting early childhood practice, policy, and research. Some of the recommendations to school administrators included:

• Taking proactive steps to recruit and retain educators and leaders who reflect the diversity of the children and families they serve;

• Employing staff who speak the languages of the children and families served;

• Recognizing the value of serving a diverse group of children and striving to increase the range of diversity among those served;

• Fostering staff learning communities that focus on equity issues;

• Developing relationships with social service agencies and providers within their communities;

• Establishing clear protocols for supporting children with behavior challenges and addressing them equitably; and

• Creating opportunities for multiple voices with diverse perspectives to engage in leadership and decision-making.

“A Principal’s Guide to Early Learning and the Early Grades,” a 2021 executive summary developed by NAESP and the National P-3 Center, is a comprehensive resource for school leaders who want to improve the education continuum from preschool through third grade. The competencies it outlines include:

• Understanding child development;

• Fostering partnerships;

• Embracing a pre-K–3 vision;

• Ensuring equity;

• Sharing leadership and building professional capacity; and

• Promoting continuous improvement.

Where to Start

Elementary principals can begin by acknowledging that there are two different systems operating in their schools: a birth-to-5-years system that includes pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, and a traditional K–12 system that overlaps it. Together, the two systems address a range of child development, and school leaders should be sure they have a strong understanding of the whole continuum in order to support their students across the two systems.

Leadership preparation typically doesn’t include a strong foundation in child development that addresses the birth-to-5 system in their school, which leaves school leaders trying to apply what might be appropriate for learning in a K–12 system to their youngest learners. It’s difficult to create alignment across the two systems without a strong understanding of the differences in the child development needs of each.

Research has also shown that the early years of a child’s brain development are the most critical. It happens rapidly, and maximizing quality learning experiences during a child’s first eight years dramatically improves their learning trajectory in later years of schooling. Understanding this continuum prepares school leaders to recognize developmentally appropriate pedagogy and best practices, and child development courses and programs such as NAESP’s Pre-K–3 Leadership Academy and the New Teacher Center’s Early Learning Leadership Program can help.

High-Quality Early Learning Experiences

One currently misunderstood practice revolves around what high-quality early learning experiences look like. Children are experiential learners—they learn by doing rather than by thinking. Shared, physical, play-based activities with teachers and peers are especially effective opportunities for learning.

The concept of “play” is also misunderstood or misapplied by many. Effective educators of young children understand that this refers to hands-on engagement, not idle time. It is critical time for trial and error or informal experimentation. As children learn to understand and manage their emotions and behavior, they develop cognitive skills such as reasoning, attention, memory, listening, and language. Play allows them to progress through increasingly sophisticated levels of thinking and understanding.

While supplying classrooms with appropriate furniture and materials designed for young children enhances experiential learning, it is essential to also support the developmental needs of students during the school day. Expecting children to sit for long periods of time with too much teacher talk or teacher-directed activities hinders learning. The best classroom learning environments engage children in busy, active, and productive learning activities. Observational tools are available to help leaders look at their classrooms with the appropriate lens—one that distinguishes between the birth-to-age-5 and K–12 systems differently and appropriately.

Hiring, Placement, and PD

School leaders must hire and place teachers in the grades that match their knowledge and expertise, while keeping the continuum of child development in mind. Frequently, teachers have expertise in either the birth-to-age-5 system or the K–12 system, but not both.

School leaders can help teachers improve their practice through aligned, ongoing professional development and job-embedded coaching that reflects current knowledge of child development and best practices that support early learners. Aligned birth-to-age-5 and K–12 systems offer teachers opportunities to collaborate and learn where children are coming from and expose any persistent gaps in learning.

Supporting Transitions

Effective transitions used to refer to some kind of single-event orientation for families and children or some communication of registration deadlines and processes as students progressed through the birth-to-age-5 and K–12 years. Today, quality transition strategies should reflect the varying and diverse needs of the school community.

Leaders should find out what their families prefer: school-based or home-based involvement. Rural families might need more transition supports and communication, since they might have less access to high-quality early learning programs. Boys, children with disabilities, and children living in poverty are also more likely to experience transitional challenges. Many resources are available to help leaders design strategies to support and promote family engagement during the transition.

One challenge for school leaders is to create policies and procedures that improve and strengthen transition practices between the sending and receiving sides of birth-to-age-5 programs. External early childhood programs occasionally share records with schools, but some research has shown that the receiving teachers rarely use them.

Knowing the early learning programs in your community and communicating and collaborating with them can provide a strong foundation for effective transition strategies. Teachers should have reliable information about the nature of their students’ preschool experiences, not just the informal knowledge shared by parents.

School Readiness

It’s often said that children need to develop school readiness, but schools need to be ready for the children they receive, too. In the birth-to-age-5 system and the K–12 system, keep in mind that what a child knows and is able to do is often a reflection of their prior learning opportunities, not an indicator of what a child is capable of learning.

This is another reason that early learning opportunities in the birth-to-age-5 system need to be of high quality and differentiated to meet the needs of children at any step in the development continuum. Classrooms can’t be one-size-fits-all in terms of teacher interactions, curriculum, and instructional strategies, nor can the school leader’s expectations. School leaders need to possess cultural competence, have an ability to establish an inclusive school climate, use data to identify any disproportionalities, and differentiate birth-to-age-5 and K–12 resources and strategies so that everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed.

Leading for the early years requires administrators to gain the knowledge and skills to ensure that the birth-to-age-5 systems and the K–12 systems within their schools get the attention they deserve and reflect the appropriately high-quality teaching and learning across developmental continuums. Fortunately, NAESP, NAEYC, and the National P-3 Center have developed a treasure trove of resources for caring and concerned school leaders to explore.

Judith Walker is early learning branch chief for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Christopher Wooleyhand, Ph.D., is principal of Pershing Hill Elementary School in Fort Meade, Maryland.

You might be a resilient leader if…

The last few years have shaped school leaders in numerous and unexpected ways.  We have been challenged to support our schools during unprecedented times.  The skill set that defines a principal has been tested during the pandemic.  With some self-reflection, and apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, you might consider yourself a resilient leader if…

  • Your skills as a contact tracer have made you a great candidate for private detective jobs.
  • You can recite local health guidelines for COVID without supporting notes.
  • You’ve spent countless nights working on sub coverage using plan A, B, and C while covering positions with every available breathing body.
  • You constantly tell everyone that things will get better while not being so sure yourself.
  • You wake up in the middle of the night knowing you’ve forgotten something, you just don’t know what, and getting back to sleep eludes you.
  • You’ve personally covered lunch duty, recess duty, bus duty, and every other duty too many times to count.
  • You get lots of emails from people outside the schoolhouse who seem to have forgotten there is a pandemic going on, “We need the (fill in the blank) report right away!”
  • You have a large collection of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day face masks.
  • You’ve tried yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and anything else to practice self-care.
  • The only people who really know what your face looks like live in your house or meet with you on Zoom/Google Meet/Teams.
  • You’ve gained or lost weight depending on your personal stress response.
  • Your non-educator spouse has learned not to ask you about your day until you’ve had a glass of your favorite beverage.

And finally, you might be a resilient leader if…

  • Despite everything, you really ARE optimistic about the future.

So, if you’ve been a school leader through the pandemic, you ARE a resilient leader.  Your students, teachers, and school community have looked to you for direction and you came through for them.  We can all be our own worst critics.  Let’s give ourselves the same grace we give others.  Accept that while we are imperfect, we have done something most people can’t understand.  We have stood strong while chaos bubbled around us.  We have been the beacon of hope and consistency that our schools needed.  That, my friends, is no joke.

I wrote this article for the February 2022 edition of the MAESP News & Notes.

Social justice education matters for all students

An edited version of this response was printed in the March 12th edition of the Capital Gazette.

In James Braswell’s March 8th editorial, readers were given a partial history lesson to argue against social justice education.  Mr. Braswell’s open and unfettered words gave us a glimpse into thinking that is, unfortunately, shared by others.  It is tempting to take his argument point by point and offer a counter narrative.  I could try to explain to him that what he calls an insidious platform is a genuine attempt to ensure that all students understand themselves and their peers better.  I could try to persuade Mr. Braswell that the progressive values he derides are the same values this country was founded on – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Additionally, I might try to explain to him that equity is not solely about outcomes; it is about opportunities.

Mr. Braswell notes that hard work will lead to success.  While this is fundamentally true, it ignores the reality for people of color in America.  School districts have a responsibility to reflect on their practices to make sure students are given opportunities to succeed.  I might also argue with Mr. Braswell that equity is not an in-vogue concept that is poisoning our public schools.  In fact, by addressing and highlighting issues around equity, our students will better understand their place in the world.

Mr. Braswell is, however, partially right.  It is not about feelings, it is about knowledge.  When we shelter our students from discussions about the real world, we do them a disservice.  Students who are not given a chance to discuss and debate current events in a safe and structured environment won’t be able to do it on their own.  Social justice education and focusing on equity helps build resilient and capable students.  Our children are not falling behind.  That is a weak argument made by those who want to suggest that students are losing something when schools address social justice and equity issues.  They are not.

I could argue these points with Mr. Braswell, but I doubt I could bring him to understand that his daughter, her school, and his great community all benefit from the efforts of the AACPS Office of Equity and Accelerated Student Achievement.  My focus will remain on my students.  It is hard to change the opinions of adults who politicize well-intentioned and thoughtful curriculum choices.  With children, however, you can see the difference that social justice education makes.  When you see students expressing pride, confidence, and a healthy self-esteem while recognizing the dignity of others, you know your work matters.  You know it matters to all students.  That’s enough for me and that’s why I’ll continue wearing orange.

Leading for racial equity

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

-Paulo Freire

I think a lot about race.  Not just because of recent events, but because I believe that education is the key to changing the views of the ignorant.  Racism is ignorance.  It’s the inability to see that we all have value.  Most of us probably believe that you can’t change a racist person’s heart.  That doesn’t mean we stop trying.  As an educator, I must believe that people can evolve.  It’s what we do.  We help people evolve.

I feel a sense of urgency to speak and write about racism, but only if it will lead to action, not just the actions of others, but my own.  Speaking and writing require thought.  Thinking hard about something requires reflection.  But speaking and writing aren’t enough.  We must do something.  What can school leaders do about inequities and racial injustice in their schools?  The answers are not simple, but they are incredibly important.

The first step to fighting for social justice is the recognition that all students do not have the same access to a quality education.  The second step is understanding that even when students do have access to a quality education, their race impacts their ability to take advantage of it.  The longstanding belief in America is that everyone has an equal chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They don’t.  Deep and longstanding structural and institutional barriers still exist.  If teachers and school leaders don’t recognize this, they are unlikely to do anything of import for students of color.

If you recognize and accept the first two premises, then you are at least ready to do something about racism and racial injustice.  If you accept that inequities exist in the quality of education available to students, then you can commit yourself to improving the quality of education for marginalized groups.  If you see how education is not enough, then you can work to break down the barriers that keep students from having the same chance at success in life.

The ability to recognize racial inequities is easy for some, harder for others.  You need an awareness of others and the world if you are going to be an advocate for all students.  Overt racism is easy to recognize and confront in schools (or let’s just say it should be easy to recognize and confront).  That doesn’t mean justice is always achieved, but if a student uses a racial slur, most schools have a discipline code they follow to apply consequences.  Subtle bias and racism, however, are much more difficult to identify and address.  Schools are reflections of their communities.  Anti-racist administrators and educators must be willing to talk about what ails their community.  When schools ignore the quiet murmurs of bias and prejudice in their buildings, they give power to the ignorant.  If you have lived a sheltered life, you will be challenged to see the racial inequities that could be right in front of you.  We don’t know what we don’t know, but we can’t use that as an excuse to disengage.  So…

Educate yourself

You don’t need a racially diverse group of close friends to care about and advocate for others.  You do, however, need to believe in the value and importance of all people.  We can’t assume that everyone has those values.  If you believe in the value of others, then you must also be willing to learn about the world outside your little bubble.  You need to be well-read and seek knowledge and understanding from a variety of sources.  While you can learn a lot from committed study, you can learn even more if you…

Listen to your students

The best listeners look for meaning beyond the spoken word.  How much knowledge could we gain from our students and their families if we truly listened to them?  Listening takes time.  Listening requires commitment.  As important as relationships are, they must go beyond the superficial level.  The only way to get beyond the daily niceties of teaching is to have real conversations with students.  That means you will sometimes have to put down the curriculum and open yourself up to spontaneous discussion.  Yes, that’s scary, but those are the times you will get unexpected insight into the lives of your students.  Once students know you are listening to them, you’ll be able to…

Make sure they know you believe in them

All students need to know that someone believes in them, but students from marginalized groups need to know it and feel it more often.  If you grow up being told that society doesn’t value or accept you, you develop coping skills that make you question any feedback, including positive feedback.  If you foster trusting relationship with your students, they will believe it when you tell them how great they are.  When you tell them, tell them specifically why they are great.  Telling them “why” reminds them that someone they respect knows who they are.  If you tell them you believe in them enough, it will…

Help them believe in themselves

When we help students believe in themselves, we equip them with the skills to take on the world.  The world can be harsh and unforgiving.  It can also be inclusive and inspiring.  When students believe in themselves, they are prepared to take on bigotry.  When students believe in themselves, they have the confidence to break through barriers because they know it’s their right.  We can do this for students.  We can do this every day for students by consistently challenging their thinking.  The ignorance of bigotry and racism can be overcome by school leaders and educators who are willing to speak up and speak out for their students.  I believe this because, like Paulo Freire’s quote below suggests, it is the only way we can make it possible for students to become themselves.

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
― Paulo Freire

Serving Those Who Serve

The following appears in the March/April 2020 edition of Principal Magazine, all rights reserved.

-co-authored with Erica Natalicchio, school counselor

Every year, half a million military children leave their homes and schools to travel to new destinations around the United States and the world. Military families average such a move, known as a permanent change of station (PCS), every two to three years. This creates significant challenges for families who bear an inordinate number of obstacles related to military service.

State and local school systems must support military families as they transition to new locations. According to the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, states must provide uniform treatment of military children as they transfer between school districts, observing its guidelines for the transfer of records, academic information, and placement, as well as guidance on immunization records, age of entry, and special education services.

The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) issued a brief in 2010, “Trauma Faced by Children of Military Families—What Every Policymaker Should Know,” which outlines the impact multiple deployments can have on military children. These include high rates of mental health issues, trauma, and related problems; changes in school performance; and higher rates of behavioral and emotional difficulties. The brief also noted that redeployment often impacts the mental health status of at-home caregivers, compounding the effects on children.

NCCP’s research says that children are resilient to the effects of changes in parental deployment. But the brief confirms that families who receive support services experience less deployment-related stress. This is where schools come in: With time and focused effort, schools can develop a range of supports for military-connected families.

Available Resources

There are numerous resources, organizations, and programs available to support schools and military-connected families. These include educational liaisons, the Exceptional Family Member Program, the Military Child Education Coalition, and various wraparound social services. Each provides very specific services for families and schools.

Educational liaisons. Every military base or post employs an educational liaison to assist families and schools. School liaison officers (SLOs) are the point of contact on an installation for everything school-related. Typically civilians, they are familiar with unique aspects of military life that can affect families. They help build partnerships between families, installations, and schools and act as the point of contact for the installation.

The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). Run by the Department of Defense (DOD), this program assists families by identifying and enrolling family members with special medical or educational needs. Representatives find out what services are available at a current or new duty station, and they support families with information, referrals, and nonclinical case management. EFMP assists service members with assignment coordination, ensuring family members’ needs are considered during relocations.

The Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). The Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) is a nonprofit organization that helps military children thrive in the face of transition and separation. MCEC works to ensure inclusive, quality educational opportunities for military-connected children. Its goals include:

  • Ensuring that the academic, social, and emotional needs of military children are recognized, supported, and provided for;
  • Empowering parents and other supporting adults to ensure that military-connected children are college- and career-ready; and
  • Fostering a strong community of partners that is committed to supporting an environment in which military-connected children can thrive.

MCEC has an extensive online library related to supporting military families, and its online newsletters, Voice for the Military Child and Just Sayin’, are excellent resources. MCEC also holds an annual National Training Seminar in Washington, D.C., that brings together a diverse group of educators, liaisons, parents, and service members.

Wrap-around social work supports. The armed forces provide military families with a range of supports for all aspects of military life. Counseling services for members and families are free and confidential, and the military offers resources including:

  • Military financial and legal assistance;
  • Job and education help for military spouses;
  • Parenting and military child care assistance;
  • Deployment help for military families;
  • Moving assistance for military families; and
  • Health and wellness assistance.

The challenge for schools is to build awareness and coordination when it comes to helping military families access social services and supports. Counselors play a critical role in connecting families with the resources they need, and they can help by developing partnerships with military-funded social service providers.

Welcoming Military Families

Schools are often the first source of assistance in helping military families feel connected to their new communities. To nurture a sense of belonging, schools can host new-student orientations over the summer and after winter break, common transition periods. New-student orientations should give families the chance to tour the school, ask questions, and meet the key personnel who play an active role in the students’ academic and social success.

Schools can improve service delivery, access, and relationships by becoming familiar with community-based resources. Offering convenient mental health services on-site allows for long-term care and support. School counselors should work quickly to connect with new families, especially those with children who have special needs. They should be trained to identify and understand the signs that indicate a student may be under serious emotional distress.

School counselors and administrators should also be familiar with Tri-Care, a commonly used health insurance provider for military families. As with nonmilitary families, insurance coverage often impacts the quality and availability of services.

School counselors have a responsibility to think above and beyond the usual comprehensive curriculum when working with a unique population. School counselors can assist military-connected families by:

  • Scheduling every student for a “minute meeting” with them. Minute meetings allow for a quick, general glimpse of how the student is feeling during his or her first few days of school and allows him or her to identify the role of the school counselor.
  • Fostering relationships with the school liaison officer to strengthen community partnerships. Families often rely on the SLO to understand the new community; counselors can be the link to that partnership.
  • Organizing a new-student ambassador program. Student-to-student outreach allows new students to meet and make friends at their new school while creating connections with classmates. New students can be greeted, given a tour, and taken to lunch with the same student on their first day.
  • Welcoming the entire family to promote the success of the military-connected student. Often, a spouse will seek volunteer opportunities. Schools should be open in communicating those opportunities and encourage parents to get involved.
  • Hosting a community social and emotional learning event that recognizes the challenges for military-connected families. Schools should look for and develop presentations that address the unique needs of military-connected families.
  • Inviting local military units into the school as role models. With parents deployed, this can help students to actively engage with adult role models during structured playtime.
  • Celebrating the Month of the Military Child in April. Link up with parent volunteers and PTA or PTO to celebrate the unique life of the military child. Schools with a large military population often celebrate “Purple Up Day,” recognizing all service branches.
  • Creating your own challenge coin to recognize good character. Challenge coins are a military tradition meant to instill pride, recognize hard work and dedication, and show appreciation for one’s service. Schools with a large military population can task their students with creating a personalized school challenge coin. Students can be nominated by any member of the faculty to receive a challenge coin.
  • Inviting the base or garrison commander to speak to the faculty. A school’s relationship with the base commander can provide positive outcomes for children and families. Ask them to speak to the staff about the unique aspects of the installation to give teachers a fresh perspective on what it means to serve in the military.
  • Using community-building circles to enhance relationships with new students. Community building circles are a structured process designed to build a trustworthy and encouraging classroom environment. Because of the number of school transitions that military-connected students experience, developing positive relationships with peers can be more challenging than with nonmilitary children.

Schools have the resources and expertise to provide the most important thing military families need—peace of mind. By recognizing and supporting the unique needs of these families, schools can make at least one aspect of their lives a little easier. In a small way, schools serve their country by taking good care of military-connected children. That is an honorable and achievable goal—one that can give a whole country a little hope.

Erica Natalicchio is a counselor at Pershing Hill Elementary in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Christopher Wooleyhand is principal of Pershing Hill Elementary.


Creating a culture of numeracy

The following appears in the May/June 2019 edition of Principal magazine, all rights reserved:

Schools that create positive perceptions about math instruction can boost performance, too.
By Kim VerMerris and Christopher Wooleyhand
Principal, May/June 2019. Volume 98, Number 5.

American schools struggle to provide effective, impactful math instruction, and the performance of students on several indicators of math progress suggests we have much work to do. In an October 2018 Education Week article, Catherine Gewertz noted that ACT scores in math have reached a 20-year low. SAT scores in math were stagnant over that same period.

Interestingly, the National Center for Education Statistics found that elementary school students demonstrated a gradual improvement in math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2013, with scores for 9-year-olds increasing since 1973. Even so, the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment ranked American students 39th in the world in math achievement.

Elementary schools aren’t waiting for state and federal education officials to step in, though; they are working diligently to deliver quality math instruction themselves. Some have started with a cultural change—fostering a positive math culture in elementary schools to have a significant impact on the success of teachers and students. Such change requires collaboration, but schools that work to develop consistent expectations and targeted strategies are helping students become confident and competent critical thinkers.

Math Specialists Wanted

Federal and state education officials can help by providing school systems with the resources and tools necessary to address this growing concern. What might happen if schools were provided resources in math commensurate with those provided for reading? When did we decide that numeracy should take a back seat to literacy?

Organizations such as the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) have been advocating on behalf of math specialists in elementary schools for more than 40 years, and more school districts should have adopted their recommendations by now.

NCSM continues to advocate for math leadership in all elementary schools. As the publisher of several position papers, they note that math specialists have a positive influence on teachers and students. They believe that elementary math specialists can have an incredible impact on the effectiveness of others, and that they are crucial to developing high-quality math programs.

Francis “Skip” Fennell, professor emeritus at McDaniel College, said in a 2011 NCSM Journal article that the simple (and yes, costly) step of installing state-certified math teachers in elementary schools would go a long way toward improved math performance. The director of the Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project and past president of AMTE and NCTM, he suggests the following practices to assist in building a math culture:

  • Find creative ways to attain, use, and sustain math resource/specialist/coach support;
  • Identify teachers in the building who are passionate about math to build instructional capacity;
  • Use the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice as a foundation for engaging all students in the mathematics they are learning;
  • Display math-themed bulletin boards, visuals, and student products to promote student interest;
  • Regularly communicate with parents to share your school’s math vision;
  • Connect mathematics learning to contexts that make the subject come alive (and underline that yes, it’s a fun subject!);
  • Promote games and schoolwide math challenges to build mathematics excitement; and
  • Select grade-level math reps who meet regularly to discuss math instruction and constantly monitor and promote the school’s math culture.

Consistency Builds Culture

The work related to promoting a positive math culture is ongoing. School leaders need to be relentless and consistent in their efforts. Schools that consistently focus their efforts on the following practices might find that as their math culture grows, so do the confidence and performance of their staff and students. Here’s how:

Provide administrative support. School leaders must serve as the catalysts in the growth of a positive math culture. For instructional change to occur, math must be a focus area of the school improvement plan. Math goals in your school improvement plan should include realistic steps to meet the needs of your students, create accountability in analyzing data, and encourage teachers to be open to changes in instructional practices. Teachers need opportunities to learn together and plan together. Collaborative planning, vertical teaming, and professional development should be aligned with the improvement plan.

Foster collaborative planning. As leaders create a collaborative planning schedule for the year, they can schedule teachers’ meetings around math instruction. It is important for administrators to attend these meetings to promote the value and importance of consistent math planning. Consider inviting outside math resource teachers or building staff to support grade-level teams.

Develop meeting agendas with teachers and share them with grade-level teams a week ahead of time to allow everyone to prepare. Sessions should include time to celebrate and share classroom successes; everyone will benefit from the opportunity to show off what they’re proud of and acknowledge peers’ contributions. Teachers must be encouraged to share best practices related to the standards on which they are focusing.

Each planning session should include time for teachers to complete math problems themselves. “Doing the math” will help them focus on finding and using effective strategies to teach the standards, and it will create a culture that values job-embedded professional development. When cooperation and modeling strategies are used consistently during planning, they flow over into the classroom.

Offer vertical teaming opportunities. Teachers rarely have an opportunity to talk with peers from other grade levels, much less share strategies and discuss the progression and coherence of standards across grade levels. Having teachers work on schoolwide math goals with teachers in every grade helps build a collegial atmosphere in which teachers can grow by learning from their peers. Vertical team meetings will help teachers learn from each other through classroom visits and engaging, hands-on learning experiences. Vertical team meetings also allow schools to showcase teachers who are implementing the best instructional practices. Through vertical teaming, teachers get a feel for what instruction looks like throughout the building.

Elementary schools also benefit by teaming with the middle schools their students feed into, encouraging transitions with less skill regression. Vertical meetings are great opportunities to highlight in-house resources, including teachers who are strong in math or have a passion for the subject. Most importantly, vertical meetings help grow a positive and productive math culture.

Establish a math growth mindset. Everyone is a mathematician; we all have the capability to learn math strategies and communicate math thinking. Creating a school in which teachers and students persevere and use mistakes as learning opportunities builds a growth mindset that discourages teachers from saying “I’m no good at math” or accepting the same belief from students. A growth mindset will help staff and students see struggle as a path to new learning.

Involve the community. Parents sometimes struggle to understand Common Core standards and the strategies taught in school, and they want resources and support to assist their children with math. Regular communication can help parents understand the dialogue around what their children are learning. Schools can provide parents with a monthly newsletter that includes upcoming math concepts, vocabulary, and games or practice activities.

To involve them in math learning skills and strategies, invite parents to math events where they can interact with teachers and other parents. Focus the events on the major content standards taught within each grade level to help parents walk away with a sense of accomplishment and confidence as well as the tools they need to support their child.

Make math visible. A positive math culture should be evident throughout the school. Display student work to promote the importance of math in the building. Post bulletin boards, displays, and motivational signage everywhere to emphasize the Standards for Mathematical Practice and growth mindset. Offer students afterschool clubs that focus on math, centered on the 24 Game, Bedtime Math Crazy 8s, or robotics. STEM/STEAM programs are a great way to promote an integrated approach with math and other subject areas.

For years, schools have embraced the value of promoting a literacy-rich culture, and students have benefited from state and local efforts to improve reading instruction and performance. We can do the same for math. What could happen if school districts put their time, resources, and professional development efforts toward math practices that lead to proficiency? Schools that decide to promote a positive math culture might find that their students are better prepared for the future—and that would be good for everyone.

Kim VerMerris is assistant principal at Pershing Hill Elementary School in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Christopher Wooleyhand is principal of Pershing Hill Elementary.

Six Steps to Engage Students

One of the outcomes of the growth mindset movement is a dedicated focus on student engagement.  Schools are recognizing that teaching the standards requires the active participation of students.  This is an exciting and refreshing movement away from more traditional teaching methods.  Schools should feel unfettered when planning for instruction that combines both the rigor of higher standards with a pedagogy that excites young learners.

In his article, Engage Kids With Seven Times the Effect, Todd Finley identified the benefits of engagement for students.  He noted that they:

  • experience improved academic achievement and satisfaction
  • are more likely to persist through academic struggles
  • earn higher standardized test scores
  • have better social skills
  • are less likely to drop out of school

Teachers naturally want their students to be engaged in the instruction they provide.  They want their students to be absorbed in the learning process because their instincts tell them it supports long-term understanding.  The “how” of engagement can be challenging, even for experienced teachers.  Planning for active student engagement requires meticulous preparation as well as a willingness to change direction when the moment calls for it.  Most of all, it requires that teachers truly know each student.

Teachers who know the strengths and needs of their students use that knowledge to raise their success.  They put their students in learning situations where the rewards are high and the risk of failure is low.  They don’t try to manipulate the end-result, but they narrow the number of potential outcomes.

Here are six suggestions for how schools can increase student engagement:

  1. Develop an “engagement” culture

Like most significant initiatives, change starts with a school’s culture.  If you want to focus on student engagement then you’ll have to develop a collaborative vision with teachers and staff that celebrates the benefits of engaging instruction.  The collaborative approach lends itself to enduring change.  You don’t have to build consensus or “buy-in,” you need a commitment among the staff to grow strong instructional practices around the standards you are teaching.

  1. Have them teach each other.

See how high the level of engagement goes when students are told that they will be teaching a new concept to their classmates.  It’s not about the fear factor, but students certainly become more engaged in classrooms that include opportunities for them to teach each other.  Of course, it should be genuine, not contrived.  While this approach may take more time, it leads to greater retention of the material and deeper understanding of the concepts.  Students often listen with a greater focus when their peers speak.

  1. Assign authentic tasks with meaningful final projects.

Students are quickly motivated when their learning is related to topics they are passionate about.  In turn, passionate teachers can easily motivate their students by selecting lessons that focus on real-life problems and issues.  The final projects associated with problem-based learning should be meaningful.  The simplest question teachers should ask before determining the focus of an investigation is, “Who will we share what we’ve learned with and how will we do it?”  Great teachers share their passion for learning and pass it on to their students.

  1. Promote working together.

While it may be hard to know what careers we are preparing students for, we can assume that collaboration will be a key skill for their success.  Students need training in how to work with others.  It is not a natural talent.  Consistent structures and practices lead to collaboration that flows and seems natural.  Teachers can begin with highly controlled practices and, as students assume more independence, they can exercise a gradual release of responsibility.  Most importantly, teachers should expect some failure as they foster collaboration.  Through that failure, they will build student resilience and a deeper understanding of how the whole is often greater than its parts.

  1. Incorporate technology.

The modern teacher has many choices when it comes to using technology as a teaching tool.  Teachers must become comfortable with learning about technology alongside their students.  Blogging, file sharing, digital media, digital citizenship, project-based learning, Genius Hour, the maker movement, curation and many more terms have made their way into the current educational lexicon.  Technology allows schools to connect their students with others across the globe.  Small school districts can provide opportunities that their students might not otherwise have.  Start investigating the newest technology.  If you don’t, you can bet your students will.

6. Get students moving.

Students should be sitting as little as possible during the school day.  If your students aren’t moving every fifteen minutes, they probably aren’t learning as much as you want them to.  Brain-based research has clearly linked the role of movement in learning.  Where does the blood pool when you’re sitting for long stretches of time?  You can bet it’s not in the brain.  Movement breaks and physical activity re-awaken the brain’s synapses and make students available for new learning.

Once engagement becomes part of a school’s culture, it needs nurturing to sustain its benefits.  School principals can develop look-fors based on the specific needs of their students and staff.  The challenge for observers is to distinguish between student activity and student engagement.  Robert Marzano is recognized as an expert in student engagement.  His book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, is a good starting point for school leaders seeking to foster student engagement.  Marzano offers several tips that provide a good foundation for assessing engagement in schools.  Based on his tips, school principals should look for evidence of:

  • the quality of relationships in the classroom
  • a variety of teaching methods being utilized
  • the level and source of questions asked (teacher and student generated)
  • student choice
  • acceptance (teacher to student; student to student)
  • effective pacing
  • the use of wait time
  • positive and respectful communication (verbal and non-verbal

While this is not an exhaustive list, it’s a good starting point for schools focused on improving student engagement.  If one of the tenets of ESSA is to personalize learning for students, then targeting student engagement may be the vehicle to success.  By maintaining high expectations for all students and offering rigorous, engaging instruction, we can at least get children more excited about coming to school.  That’s a good start!

This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Principal magazine.  All rights reserved.

Organizational A.D.D.

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

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

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

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

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

School Leadership Lessons from Great Generals

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

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

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

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

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

-General Colin Powell

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

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

-Gen. John J. Pershing

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

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

-George S. Patton

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

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

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

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

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

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

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

-General Norman Schwarzkopf

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

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

-General Bruce C. Clarke

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

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

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