October 17, 2013

Not leaving it to "Luck"

I am lucky.  I have an incredible staff.  I was hired three weeks into this school year to replace a principal that did a great job of developing a solid PLC foundation, that brought in a balanced literacy approach with the Daily 5 structures, and set up a positive school environment with the integration of PBIS practices.

I am lucky.  I have veteran staff members that are positive and eager learners themselves. I have teachers that are supportive of shared leadership practices and they support the initiatives we are taking on like the Common Core Standards, Curriculum Mapping, Educator Effectiveness, and Common Formative Assessments.  

I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a staff that has welcomed me in.  A staff that has answered my questions about how we do things here but also encouraged me to change things as well. Not everything, but to suggest it where I think we may benefit from it.  A staff that wants the absolute best for their students. Because what's best for the students will undoubtedly be best for them.

I am lucky.  I found a staff, and even a district, that is dedicated to learning. Learning for all. Knowing that increasing learning for students means learning for staff as well.  A staff that knows we cannot prepare students for the future if we only practice how we learned in the past.  

I am lucky.  Sometimes it feels like all I need to do is keep them up to date with current trends and practices. Share the latest articles, introduce new apps or listen to the great educational and student-centered conversations they already have.  My staff is AWESOME!!

But..........I do have one dragon to slay.  One battle to fight.  One windmill to joust.  A nemesis that many education leaders face today.....


It can be a paralyzing emotion for many people and it has made its way into the education arena. 

Policy and law changes have unsettled the feeling of comfort to which many teachers had become accustom. Dismantling unions, grading schools, high stakes testing, increased administrative pressure to succeed on standardized tests, performance pay, scripted curriculum, school choice vouchers, etc., etc.  Not all of these reforms were created to diminish teacher voice or union power, but their cumulative effect has definitely created a culture of fear amongst teachers. They second guess themselves, they are leery of taking risks in practices, and they have become distrustful of their leaders. They fear being honest and critical.  They feel like they will be cut loose at any time, fired from a job they love and have studied and prepared for over much of their life.

My staff is lucky.  I see myself as their servant.  I see myself as the person that is there to help them do their job better, more efficiently, more effectively.  I see myself as the person who gets them what they need and clears all the obstacles I can.  I advocate for them so they can work the miracles they work everyday.

My staff is lucky.  I am not a tyrant or power hungry leader.  I see myself as their coach.  A leader who believes that sometimes we do our best learning when we risk making mistakes.  A leader who believes in words like "we" and "us", not "you" or "I".  Because "we" are a team, and my success depends on their success, and we all achieve more together.

Our students are lucky.  They have an incredibly dedicated group of teachers that care about their students. They care about their home-life, they care about their health, they care about their learning, they care about their future. Our students have teachers that work tirelessly to make sure their students achieve success in life, and find happiness in their future.  But maybe the luckiest thing for our students.......is that their teachers won't leave all that to "Luck."

August 27, 2013

Questions.....they're not about you

It's just another day.  When you're a leader, the days are filled with this scenario.  It's what your job is all about really.  People coming to you with questions.  Questions.  It can seem endless some days.  Question after question.  Some are big and very important.  Those seem to bother you less, as a leader you know you are there to answer those questions.  If not right now, you will find the answer.  If you think it will be a growth experience for your team member, then you put them on the path, but either way, leaders get excited about those kinds of questions.  However, there are also the questions you get that can make you shake your head.  Maybe you pull out some hair, or if you are like me and get worried its getting to thin, you leave it there and just let it get grayer at a faster pace.  They are the little questions, questions that you are sure you have answered, or at least confident that anyone that has been hanging around your building should be able to answer.  But they still crop up....and they can drive a leader crazy.  But should it?

We are all busy people.  Our staff is busy carrying out their mission.  I am fond of saying, "teachers are where the rubber meets the road."  I can preach all I want, provide some excellent Professional Development, and support staff with a budget that provides wanted resources, but really....it all comes down to the hard work of the staff to ensure we are completing our mission of student learning.  That is our goal.
So should I get that upset when they come to me with questions I have already answered in the e-mail that went out last week.....or yesterday? When it was something I clearly noted in the last staff meeting?  I suppose I could.  I could send out another e-mail, stating it over again with a couple of exclamation points at the end.  But will that help? Or just chase away questions?

Is suppose it depends on your leadership style.  I prefer a servant leadership style.  I am constantly asking myself, "what can I do to make their job easier?"   This practice comes without spotlights, and recognition is not what its about either. Instead, you are focused on your team and giving them whatever it is they need.  Sometimes......they just need an answer to a question.  

What you have to remember as a leader is that not every answer needs to be given right away.  Not every answer needs to come directly from you.  Sometimes, you should ask the question right back.  Sometimes, you can just show them how to find the answer for themselves.  If it is something you know you have told them, discussed with them, and shared your beliefs on.....well, maybe they are coming to see if you changed you mind.  Many times, they may be hoping you changed your mind.  Either way, there doesn't seem to be a need to get upset.  Take a breath, get some perspective, and try some empathy.

Taking on the leadership role in a school is not an easy matter.  You now have chosen to be the "go to" person for a whole building.  Not just teachers, but for students, parents, school board members, the superintendent and a whole bunch of community members.  You are now seen as thee answer person.  The person who is responsible.  The person with the vision.  The LEADER.  I am hoping you didn't take this role on as a feather in your hat, or because it was the next job on the ladder.  You have taken a role, consciously or not, that is no longer about you.  You are now there to make sure everything goes well and smoothly for everyone else.

My guess is, you knew what you were getting into and that you did it for the right reasons. Yes, even the best leaders get frustrated with the day to day, the wasteful paperwork, the demands on your time by so many people and probably some of the repeated questions.  But if you take a minute, and recall what it was like when you were back in the classroom, with that laser like focus on your students and giving them the best that you had.....well, you can probably remember that you too forgot some of the answers that were provided to you. Information that was shared at a staff meeting (when you were thinking of what to make for dinner for your family), or when the principal popped into a team meeting and shared when classroom budgets needed to be turned in (and you forgot to write it down as you worked on improving lesson plans), or the time when the procedure for posting something to your classroom website was shared in an e-mail (and you accidentally put it in the trash forgetting that the trash is emptied at the end of each semester to save storage space).  It happens to all of us.....and Leaders, instead of taking it personally, step back....put on your empathy shoes.....and remember that they are human too....and our job is to serve them and to clear the path.....so that they can become the leaders......tomorrow.  Hopefully, they'll be a leader with empathy and patience.....just like you.

So take on those questions with a smile.  All of them.  Give them the answer they need, even if it is how to find the answer for themselves, and be the leader they can count on. The one they trust enough to go to with the smallest of questions, the questions that are requests for information you already shared, and the questions that are really requests for you to change your mind. Remember, the questions are really more about them and not about you.

August 15, 2013

Who comes first?

There are some epic changes taking place in education nowadays.  I'm sure if you look back through history you will find evidence of changes in education taking place all along.  There are always things being added to the plates of teachers and new curriculum being expected to be taught at schools.  Jamie Vollmer has compiled a nice list of the duties that have been added to the teaching role over time and while it is not complete, it does paint a clear picture of the trend.  But until recently the pressure to not only teach more to our children, but to measure that growth and hold educators accountable for it has never reached the crescendo it has now, and I'm not sure we have even reached the apex of this call for accountability.  And its goal, this accountability craze, to ensure all kids learn at high levels and are prepared for our flattened world economy.
But is that the goal?  There has been a tremendous influx of private business into the education system now and it has grown beyond the "Big Three" publishers that seemed to have the majority of outside influence.  The influx of technology combined with the flattening of the world (maybe the breaking down of walls is a more appropriate analogy) thanks to the internet has opened education up to all sorts of businesses interested in the dollars we have to spend on our goal of education for all.  This doesn't make technology bad, or the internet the root of all things evil, it just means that maybe our focus has shifted, or maybe we have just lost sight of what our goal really is.

The pressure for teachers to be their best is greater than ever, and with the fast paced change in our world and the exponential growth of information in this technology age, teachers are finding themselves to be in a career that requires them to be constantly growing and learning.  Now, to some that may seem offensive, as teachers have always been a group that have pushed themselves to be learners.  But what has changed is the pace at which we must now grow and learn, and the weight of accountability has created fear amongst educators that has shifted their focus and has chased quality educators away from their calling.   The taxpayers have been told they are being ripped off by a system that is failing our children, and so.....heads must roll (thanks market driven media, for your support).  The thing is, teachers are working their tails off to keep up with this change.  They are learning new standards, new strategies, and new tools, all in an effort to reach the goal that teachers set in the first place...... To have all students learning at high levels.  To have all students prepared to be successful in life.  But just like we don't expect kids to learn all they need for life in Kindergarten, we can't expect teachers to learn it all in a year or two.  Steve Jobs and Apple computers didn't create the Mac, iPod, iPhone or the iPad in one year. These were multi-year, multi-person efforts that took time.....that were filled with failed efforts, and that were supported with billions of dollars.  Will we accept that kind of timeline for education?

This push, this demand for excellence, all came about as a concern for kids (I hope).  
What kills me often, is the slander I hear toward educators today, that they are supposedly uncaring, lazy, money hungry unionists that are unqualified and come from low performing colleges and universities that are simply passing them along to collect their tuition dollars.  I'm going to avoid going into too much of a diatribe on that issue, suffice it to say it would seem like a not well thought out choice for someone who is lazy and money hungry to go into a career that costs far more to become licensed in, than it pays to cover that cost.  And if you were thinking of moving up the pay scale, just remember that in many states or districts, the only way to do that is to pay for furthering your education.

Now here is where my thoughts come back to my title of this post.  Teachers, facing all of these things (and many more issues I didn't go into) still come back to their jobs, take on all of the work, spend countless off the clock hours improving their lessons, contacting parents and students,  calling newspapers or even writing articles for the newspapers, or simply trying to learn how to integrate the latest web tool add-on into their classes.....for what?  Children.......Teachers do this, often thankless job, because they care about kids.  
Sure, they want, and I believe deserve, the salaries they earn, and to be honest they get short shrift on that end.  Yes they get pretty good benefits.  But I would challenge anyone to take on the job of teaching students, and think you can get away with being lazy, and not go home exhausted from the challenges this career offers.  So what is so tough about this job?  Isn't it just glorified babysitting?  Whoa!!!

This job is about the future of America and the world. That is what kids are.  Our children are the legacy we leave behind.  I wake up everyday and worry for my children, plan for my children, and think how can I make their day better.  I want for them.  I want them to be happy, I want them to know success, but also to learn from their failures.  I want them to be strong. Strong enough that when they do fall or fail, that they can get back up again, brush themselves off and give it another try.  I want to be the hand that helps them back up, when they feel they don't have the strength to do it on their own, and I want them to be that hand for someone else that feels they don't have the strength to get up.
I want them to see the world with wonder and excitement, and I want them to also see the dangers, and know when to say, "I'll pass on that."  I want them to be understanding, caring, and filled with empathy.  I want them to know hard work, and how much those efforts can pay off.  I want them to know that sometimes your hard work benefits others, and that it can be the most fulfilling feeling you will ever have.  I want my kids to know success, have success and to help others become successful as well.  I want my children to know the meaning of paying it forward.  I want them to know responsibility, and I want them to understand compassion.  I want them to be able to stand on their own, and to know how important it is to be a part of a team.

What many people don't understand is that when an educator says, my children or my kids, they mean all of their kids.  The kids in their classroom, the kids in their school, the kids around the world.  We want these things for our own children that we raise in our homes as well, but we want for all kids, everywhere.  They are the passion that drives us.  They face a tough world and we want them to be prepared. Educators are the "Champions" for kids, for all kids.  It doesn't matter what kind of kids you send us, the weak, the tired, the abused, neglected, challenged, shy, scared, restless, angry or sad..... We are Champions for them all.  Sure, that makes it a challenge for us, but that is what we signed up for, and it is our mission to serve them.  

So who comes first?  Kids.  Our students are why we are here. They provide us the motivation to do better, be better and be their Champions.  We will not be dissuaded or thrown off course by the initiatives, the policies or the banter in the media.
We will not be taken down by the Kryptonite of negative talk, or be scared off by the steady stream of new tools and ideas of what works best. Because when it comes to what's first in education.....it's a well known fact by educators. 

Kids come first.

August 2, 2013

#BeachWeek2013 - Making Them All Fit

One of the many joys of traveling across the country with your extended family is that family members like to jockey for position in which vehicle they want to ride in and more importantly who they want to ride with.  This is a carefully choreographed dance as it is easy to step on someone's toes and next thing you know, Grandma is offended and doesn't send you a birthday card.  It usually takes a few hours before the kids determine who they want to ride with, or at least figure out who they just can't tolerate any longer.  It takes a little time for the adults to consider that as well.  So, usually by the first bathroom break, seating arrangements begin to take shape. Now, these arrangements don't always last, depending on who is a sore loser on the license plate game, who is tired of listening to the audiobook, or who isn't sharing the iPad.  So, at times, the parents need to step in and decide who will ride where and with who.

So what's the connection?  Quite often building principals face a similar situation.  No, the teachers don't usually fight over an iPad or who is winning in the fewest students tardy award, but it's not uncommon to have teams within schools that are not working well together.   Sometimes, there is such bad blood, that it is best to split team members up and see if the new mix helps heal teams and even broken relationships so that staff members can become friends even while not being on the same department or grade level team.  Sure, you would obviously want to try to help team members work through problems first, see what can be done to make the team work well together, but sometimes......well, things just don't work out.  Sometimes there is a strong team that has developed more than one strong leader.  The team itself is great and works well together, but you have another team that is need of a leader that knows how to work as a team, that's focused on student learning and knows how to use the data. I know my friend Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) may disagree and he explains why pretty well in his book (p.16), "Making Teamwork Meaningful" written with Parry Graham and Matt Wight, but he also shares why it may be necessary.

The sad thing is, sometimes co-workers see these switches in staffing as disciplinary in nature, when the overwhelming majority of them are not.  Sure, there are probably building leaders that use staffing changes as a disciplinary tool.  It's not a practice quality leaders will use though, as it is often transparent when it is used that way.  What we should be looking for, is to work in a highly effective team.  There is security in being able to rely and trust in your team.  To know they have your back and that they trust that you have theirs.  That may take a large cultural shift, but that starts with leaders and grows by having effective teams.  Besides, too much yelling from the backseat gets really annoying to the driver......but that sounds like a different post.

July 19, 2013

#Beachweek2013 Analogies to Edu and Leadership

The next few series of posts will be reflections and personal sharings from our annual extended family vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Yes, there will be some personal stories and photos but I will try to make them connected to either education of leadership.  Or at least in a real loose sense of the connected.

This was after taking out our baggage for the hotel.
So, this morning starts with the adventure of packing.  One of the drawbacks to being the only one in the family to own a Chevy Suburban (besides terrible gas mileage) is that the rest of your family just assumes you are always willing to haul everything that doesn't fit in their vehicles.  So as the kind brother and son that I am.........I do.  My vehicle is packed full (although no car top cargo carrier this year is nice) and while my son & daughter could each have their own bench seat they instead will have to share the 2nd row bench seat and the third row is folded up so that we can haul more stuff.  This will inevitably end up in a few of those, "Jack won't stay on his side," squabbles each day.....but for the most part they get along well, especially if they can each get in a fair share of Minecraft on their iPads.  We are nearing the Hotel in Indianapolis for the first leg of the drive. I am getting a short break from driving and wanted to add a little to my post before I wrap it up at the hotel.  I know, I know....."where's the analogy?"  I'll get to that now.

Being a leader can often be like being the sibling with the big suburban.  The people that work with you look to you to carry the extra load sometimes.  They are hoping you have the "shoulders" to do it or the "space" to help pick up the bigger than ever burdens that have been hoist upon them.  Teaching is challenging enough, but now with all the initiatives and pressure to be "everything" to our students.....well it can be overwhelming, and often all our staff is looking for is someone to take just a bit of the load.  I posted a short while back about how sometimes it seems like everyone is expecting answers of their leaders, and it is easy to understand why.  As a leader we are usually paid more for the knowledge and responsibility we carry, but we also must remember we are an integral part of a team, and while we may not be as hands on with the students anymore, we definitely want to make sure we are lightening the load for our teachers who are.  While I may not get to be as hands on as I once was with students, I truly love my role as the Lead Learner of a school.  Working with the teachers, parents and the occasional chance to work with kids is awesome!! One of my favorite leaders (@casas_jimmy) likes to use Ghandi's quote, "Be the change you want to see in the World." I guess that comes down to stepping up, and walking the talk.  So, while it is annoying that I can't see out of my back window, and that I have to carry a lot of things that are not mine on this trip, I will still be the good brother/son and haul what I can for my family to help make this trip go smoothly and safely for all...........it would be nice if they paid me more though.  :-) 

July 17, 2013

Teacher Autonomy & Experimentation in a PLC

So, I have some great discussions with numerous educators on Twitter and they have a wide variety of opinions.  I love hearing the varying opinions, ideas and experiences. They make me stronger and better for soaking up all of the insights they share.  One of the topics that has been discussed repeatedly is that of teacher autonomy and the need for experimentation in instructional strategies without the fear of failure or worse losing your job due to poor student performance on standardized tests.  

Of course, one of the many chats I participate in is the #atplc chat that focuses on the use, implementation and best practices of Professional Learning Communities.  I have heard concerns that teacher autonomy and experimentation cannot exist in a PLC as the idea of a PLC is to create a uniform curriculum and delivery method in each classroom (of the same grade or subject area).  

Now, I'm not sure where this idea came from, but I can honestly say I have never heard any of the PLC "gurus" utter that phrase.  I have never read anything like that in my, too numerous to count, books about PLCs.  While I know PLCs are very much about using common formative and common summative assessments, I don't recall reading that each teacher needs to deliver instruction or curriculum in an identical manner.  Sure, we may want to discuss methods that seem to be very successful according to assessment data, but no where does it say we "need" to be teaching identically; using all the same books, strategies, technologies or whatever else.  I do believe we all need to teach the same standards, and using common assessments helps to ensure that students are (or are not) learning those standards.  But my experience has been mostly at the Elementary and Middle School level where I believe students need the same skills at a basic level to be successful in a variety of careers or to prepare them for college success.  When students get to high school, maybe there is another side to this coin.....Career paths? Topic for another day......

The graphic above actually lays out the PLC cycle fairly simply. The opportunity for staff to come together and examine student data will allow teachers to determine which practices are working better than others. Again, this doesn't force teaching style changes, or even resource changes, but it could surely lead to that if the team has become comfortable with that shift. Most importantly it brings the team together and these conversations can take place.  

I suppose my passion and belief in the Professional Learning Community model is evident from many of my previous posts and if you happen to follow me on Twitter I know you have heard me encourage its use in schools.  Part of that support and belief comes from my strong experiences with teams.  I have always greatly enjoyed working in teams, whether it be in sports or in education, there is something supportive, strengthening, and secure in working toward a common goal with a group of like minded individuals.  It builds on the experiences and strengths of the group and it is based on relationships of the team members.  I guess that is why I view my Twitter PLN as my "other PLC."  I feel very close with the people that I have connected with on Twitter.  Not all of them teach or lead like I do or would....but they each come with great strengths, experiences and passion for educating our students to the highest levels, and if I can glean something from them I will.  We can argue and disagree, but when it's over, what is important is that have we learned something from it.  I know I have.  

So, I'm unclear where the idea came from that a viable curriculum and common assessments somehow equals cloned teaching practices, or that everyone must use the same resources.  Maybe it began with the fears of the Common Core State Standards.  I know some people feel that the CCSS will put limits on student learning and teaching, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Finland.  I'd also add that the standards aren't meant to limit, but instead to raise the bar, provide a common goal, and give us some consistency from state to state.   The standards don't say, "You must stop here."  They do not declare that you can only teach these skills.  But I know those fears exist and that somehow it feels that the CCSS will take away autonomy and experimentation.  Truthfully, I think the opposite is true.  However, I can easily say this....if you were in my idea of a PLC, I would highly encourage a variety of strategies, resources and yes even some experimentation taking place in our classrooms.  How can we be sure we are using the best possible instructional methods or resources, if we are all using the same resources and methods?  At best, we will just be sure that we are doing the best at what we know and do already.  That concept would seem to inhibit growth.  I am always in search of growth.  For myself, my staff and my students.  I believe the conversations that take place in PLCs help make that growth possible, and eventually strengthen everyone in the community.  Am I wrong on this?  Is there a perspective on PLCs that I'm missing out on? If so, please leave me your thoughts in the comments below. 

July 14, 2013

Don't Hate the Hammer

I had an excellent discussion with a great group of friends on Twitter recently.  I wandered into the conversation a little late as I saw a topic that caught my eye and with some educators that I really respect.  The discussion was focused on the use of technology to track student behaviours.  I jumped in after I read this blog post shared by my friend George Couros.  Then I saw another great educator I respect mention a little push back. Now when Dean Shareski is offering push back to George my ears perk up.  Not that I am looking for George to be wrong about something, I just know I am about to hear some great discussion and may learn a thing or two.  Of course, when George and Dean start a discussion....well people pay attention and start to join in.  This lead to a great conversation on the use of tech tools as extrinsic motivators, badge systems, tracking behaviour data and poor decisions we sometimes make in education, including not knowing everything Dan Pink has tried to teach us in his book "Drive" or in his legendary Ted Talk.  

I knew this may get interesting as I was aware of what George thought about this subject already from his blog post here and various conversations we've shared.  But Dean had raised an interesting point.  He asked if we used technology to track learning behaviours? (sorry for any confusion about the spelling of behaviours for my US friends, I'm just trying to get in good with my Canadian pals and besides, I already ticked George off for arguing with him.)  So, I thought about what Dean said and I knew that many, many districts use tech tools like that already. Collecting data on academic performance helps us to recognize where students need support or additional time to develop skills. 

Could Class Dojo or other tools be used this way?  Sure.  But the argument started to go that it could not, or at least it wasn't intended for that use.  "It was never designed to do that." "It was created to be a carrot and stick."  "Would you make teachers use a badge system for their learning?"  Lots of passionate arguing taking place.  I liked it, nay I loved it.  Now, I could see the points of both sides, and I even had a friend jump in that shared the successful use of the tool in his classroom.  Then another great Ed Leader I respected joined the conversation.  I knew how Chris Wejr would feel about how this tool might be used.  He is no fan of extrinsic motivational tools and I have read many of his blog posts to be aware of that. Chris also shared a video of how the tool could be used poorly to create an environment where students are pushed into compliance while the teacher is walking around tallying behaviour points.  As you can see there were some differing opinions although for the most part we agreed that using a public badge system for sharing student behaviour and motivating student behaviour was a poor idea.  However, this also wasn't getting to my concern in the discussion.

My concern was that some were blaming the tool for how it was being used.  Was it possible to use this tool in a positive way?  Was it possible to use it in a different way than many people think it was created to be used?  Basically I wanted to know, "was the tool evil?"  Or, is it possible, that it was just a tool and that it could be used in a way that created unintended consequences thanks to people using it in a negative fashion?  I had already had a fellow Tweep share that he had used it with success in his classroom.  So much so, that he ended up not needing to use the tool anymore. Then another good friend, Matt Renwick, shared a blog post he had made with Six Ways to use Classroom Dojo for Meaningful Learning.  Then the next morning another great friend and amazing educator, Erin Klein, shared some of her blog posts, here and here,  that described how she has used Classroom Dojo.  So I felt a little more confident in my belief. No, it probably isn't the tool to blame when it is used by someone that ends up creating a negative learning environment.  My guess is that has happened long before this tool was created.  I am guessing that some students were made to feel ashamed, or called out in front of their peers for negative behaviours prior to the use of tech tools.  To me, this just sounds like the idea of blaming Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for bullying.  Bullying was around long before any tech tools.  Now, unfortunately, tech tools just make it easier to bully....heck you don't even need to be face to face to do it.  However, I don't think technology is causing bullying.

I don't think any teacher intends to create fear, submissiveness, or even to demean a student in front of their peers.  I know it happens, and far too often, but I don't think that is the intent.  I think there are ways and tools that can be used to help inspire students to become motivated. Maybe its just a latent motivation that the student hasn't activated yet, but the tool can help set it loose.  I know this begins to sound like a carrot and stick, but I know I liked earning badges when I was in Boy Scouts, but more importantly I enjoyed the learning experiences that came along with it.  I gained a confidence in the skills I would need to become a better scout.  I didn't get jealous that other scouts had more badges than me, after all it was my responsibility to earn them.  I didn't get embarrassed that some scouts had more badges than me, some were even younger than me, they just worked harder to earn more.  When I wanted more badges I worked to earn them.  However, maybe this was because my scoutmaster didn't present these badges, these learning opportunities, as a competition.  They were just skills.  They were skills I could earn to move myself up the boy scout ladder of mastery.  Could this have been twisted into some kind of competition.....yep. It could have and possibly is, in some scout troops, made to embarrass scouts so that they will become motivated by peer pressure to earn more badges, or so that they can be the troop with the most badges at a Jamboree. So, I guess I am trying to say that I don't think it is badges, stickers, or tech sites that are the problem.

The conundrum I have been contemplating is that I believe that it is often how a tool is used, that can make it seem like a useful or harmful tool.  Therefore, it is the person using the tool that makes it useful, harmful, good, or bad.  A hammer was created to pound nails, but that isn't all it can do.  It can remove nails as well.  It can also also crack open a walnut or a skull.  Smash a finger or build a birdhouse. So do we outlaw hammers?  Do we label them as dangerous tools?  I think the beauty and artistry of any tool is not in the tool itself, but how it is wielded by the person using it.  So when a hammer is used as a weapon or to build a cage for an animal, well, let's not hate the hammer.  Maybe I am wrong on this.....  What are your thoughts?

July 9, 2013

What do you want kids to do with Technology?

Thanks to Twitter, I found this infographic shared by Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) and retweeted by almost everyone. Of course, before I could finish up my previous post, George Couros (@gcouros) beat me to posting this on my blog. Of course, I didn't have anything to do with creating this graphic but completely agree with what it says.  I hope you enjoy it and learn from it as well.

UPDATE - Bill (@plugusin) has now gone on to share an additional post on this graphic as it has received a lot of attention and even some scrutiny.  In case you wanted to keep up with the discussion his post can be found here.

Which "one thing"?

As I read the Good to Great book, I was struck by the idea of getting good at just one thing. You know, when Jim Collins refers to the Hedgehog being great at defending itself by curling up into a ball and using its spines to protect itself.  It seemed ingenious at the time.  Getting to Great at just one thing seemed like the approach that needed to be taken.  Teachers were getting overwhelmed with all of the changes that we were asking to be implemented.  They were all great things, things that would benefit our students, our staff, our school and community.  So my question was......which one?

Do we go with PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), RTI was pretty much a must do since we have to have that in place to replace the defecit model for Special Education identification, but since we were already mostly finished with the planning and implementation for that, I scratched it off the list as already done (which you are never really done with RTI).  Then we were looking at improving our reading instructional strategies with the implementation of a focused and consistent use of Reading/Writing Workshop in grades K-5. This was very important also.  It would show an immediate impact.  But we also wanted to map our curriculum, align to Common Core, expand use of and deepen knowledge of standards based grading, implement the Leader in Me program, learn more about Tech integration, roll out 1:1 iPad minis in another grade level, improve utilization of our GAFE (Google Apps For Education) initiative, more training on our Math Expressions resource, developing and using Common Formative Assessments and Common Summative Assessments and how to use that data to drive instruction, and so on and so on.  It was easy for me to get a good grasp on why the teachers were feeling a little overwhelmed.  I may be understating that a little.

Then it occurred to me.  One of the main attractions to their hiring me as their Lead Learner, was that I was pretty experienced and knowledgeable in developing Professional Learning Communities.    Yeah, this was another thing that was on our list to accomplish.  I had worked closely with the Building Leadership Team all year, sharing what I had learned about PLCs, teamwork, trust, and having crucial conversations.  We had done book reads together, watched videos and even went on a site visit to Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois to improve our understanding of what and how PLCs operate.  As I thought about it more and more, knowing the true nature of a good PLC, it was plain to see where we needed to focus.  If we became solid in being a high quality Professional Learning Community, then the other initiatives would fall into place.  After all, when you are a PLC, Learning is in the middle of all you do.

When you become focused on teacher learning as well as student learning, the other high quality strategies and practices become part of the day to day conversation and don't seem to be something that was added on or pushed down, but instead becomes part of the natural quest to improve student learning.  Yeah, there is a lot of change taking place in education, but I would have to say that these changes are positive and focused on building positive learning environments for students and teachers. They are geared toward creating deeper student understanding and increasing their engagement in their own learning.  I'm not talking about the push for more and tougher standardized tests, I'm not talking about greater accountability and student testing data on teacher evaluations.  I'm talking about changes like the Common Core State Standards, Technology Integration, Individualized Learning Plans, School Choice, Project Based Learning, and more.  I believe PLCs will help us get there with the best chance of helping educators feel like we owned and controlled many of the changes we believe will benefit students.  What do you think? Do you have another plan to face the changes that are hurtling toward us? 

July 6, 2013

Expecting Answers.....

I have been doing the administration gig for 10 years now and my understanding of the role and its expectations have evolved over the years.  I have greatly enjoyed and embraced the role, yeah it has its challenges and there are definitely some days that I would rather be back in the classroom, but for the most part it is a great job and I love the day to day interactions with students, staff, parents and the community.  One of the things that has evolved for me is the expectation that I have all the answers to the plethora of questions I receive.  The funny thing is, the expectation from myself is what has evolved, not necessarily the expectation from others.  When I first started in administration, I believed I needed to have all the answers.  I worked hard & read voraciously to learn all I could.  Sometimes this ended in foolish decisions that revealed my inexperience, but thankfully, more often than not, I was able to make sound decisions and pass along good advice.
This shouldn't be a surprise, the idea is that when you are the building leader, you have the answers to the questions parents, students and staff have.  What I have discovered, and maybe it is a recent change due to the incredible rate of change in education right now, is that I often do not have the answers, or I am aware that the previous answer to that question is evolving.

This is one of the many reasons I stay "connected" as an educator.  By attending workshops, conferences, #edcamps, reading blogs, and staying active on Twitter, I have been able to check in and learn from educators all over the world.  Thanks to these Social Media tools, I have been able to ask questions of the authors of the many professional books I read or listen to when attending conferences.  So now that I have access to these many well informed, well researched, well written, and experienced educators and authors, am I expected to keep all of their knowledge in my head?  Do we expect our teachers to remember everything they have heard and read? Do we expect them to get it right the first time?  Do we expect that of our students? Unfortunately sometimes I do think some people expect that of our students, but I know I don't.  I have heard a great many people share how we are now in the information age, and that the amount of information available has grown exponentially in just the last decade and the rate keeps increasing.  There is an ever increasing amount of information, strategies for teaching, brain research and technology tools to improve all we do.  So, why is it I see people talking about it being okay that principals don't have all the answers, but teachers keep coming in and asking for the answers and wanting it now (or even preferably yesterday).  Is there a double standard?  I don't think so.  I'm not looking to point fingers at teachers, they are under incredible scrutiny at this time, and many feel like all of the initiatives to improve education are being crammed down their throat and they have been given no time (and very little financial support) to learn about them.  The common approach I see and hear about has been, "implement this now so we are ahead of the game, and if we make a mistake.....we still have another year to fix it."

I'm not looking to make excuses, we definitely have things we need to change in our schools. We all needed to raise our standards.  But this also means we have much to learn, and if that is the case, then we need time to learn it.  We are in a bit of a Research & Development stage right now in education, and that is a good thing.  Some of the research on best practice has never gone out of date, but there are new ways and tools to implement those strategies with now.  I know that idea doesn't exactly jive with the current hysterical call for accountability and the push for easy to use & implement standardized test scores, but we have to find a way to avoid the fear those political tools create, and get focused on student learning which means teacher learning must come first.  We have to stop expecting everyone to know the answers, and we have to start connecting with each other and learning from each other, including learning from each others mistakes.
The only way to do this is to connect, share, ask questions, try something new and share how it goes. Then.....repeat the process.  Put yourself out there, and give it a try.  Don't be afraid to fail, don't expect someone to have all the answers, and we won't expect it of you.  Share your experiences, and let's all grow together.

April 16, 2013

What's with the Witch Hunt?

So I have been reading various posts and books about culture.  There is a lot of talk about the culture of Fear in our school systems right now.  There is a wave of change sweeping the education system in the US and there is a strong voice of reform and anti-unionism that accompanies it as well.  The media for years (ever since good ole Ronny Reagan) has supported the hysterical talk of the demise of the US education system.  So maybe much of that culture of fear isn't as imagined as some would like to think. 

As a school administrator for the past 9 years, I have sensed it growing in the 4 districts I have worked in.  And the fear is growing. But why shouldn't teachers be feeling fear? The Ed Reformers slather the headlines with rants about how teachers are failing our students. They find all the incidents of poor practice, student apathy, bullying, US testing comparisons, bullying, and whatever else they can find and sensationalize the events. While we all are ready to admit these things do happen in our schools, they are not a rampant plague that is dragging our system into oblivion. Many people forget we have the Largest Public Education System in the world. It is HUGE!! So are these isolated cases being blown out of proportion? Yes....and No.  Our media is one of the most watched sources of information around the world. Our media includes newspapers, TV stations (including cable networks) and increasingly, the internet.  While mainstream media used to temper the flames of heated debates, sources like 24/7 news channels that are loaded up with opinion journalists only help add fire to these isolated cases.  
It becomes easy to enlarge an incident, and with the correct verbiage (or maybe distorted verbiage) bring it to a scale that seems catastrophic.  So as the "fair and balanced" media portrays the US educational system as failing and the Teachers Unions as the money hungry devils that protect themselves from parents that just want the best for their kids, the story spins out of control and every teacher sees themselves with a target on their back.  It may not matter how much I try to defend them, how much I pat them on the back or try to let them know it is okay to fail or to take risks with me as their leader, their bigger concern is a Governor, a Congress, a School Board member, or even a disgruntled parent may be the one to say, "you are not cutting it."  How would they possibly know that?  They are not in those classrooms.  They are not viewing their lessons, seeing how they try multiple ways to reach their students.  They're not witnessing the hours they put into planning, practicing, reading or learning the book they have been asked to read or becoming skilled in the latest technology hoped to boost student interest, engagement or just make their work more efficient.  While I may have their back on the numerous things I want them to be willing to try and to develop strengths in, they are simply wanting to survive.  This is a scary time in the US Ed System.  We are creating all sorts of new ways to provide parents and taxpayers with accountability measures, so that we can be assured that all students can do well on a Standardized Test that will mean nothing to a student when they leave school, and that I have seen often enough has no measure of how successful you will be after school.  


We have recreated the Salem Witch Hunts here in the US (since we seem to be good at not learning from our History) and begun to blame all of our woes on the US Ed System, or more precisely, our Teachers.  The very people who have given of themselves to try to provide the very thing we know will help kids be successful.....an education. The people who work tirelessly to to try to reach all of our students, the people who care deeply for the students that receive little care or even abuse in some of their home situations, the people who use their own money to find food for those students who come to school hungry.  These are the people that Ed Reformers try to vilify by exposing the rather rare incidents of poor choice that take place in our schools and then ballooning them into a catastrophe that can make the headlines or the top stories by Radio whack jobs.  Yeah, these same people that reach into their own pockets at on Thanksgiving to make sure that our needy families have real Turkey Dinner or at Christmas, when they go out shopping for the students that will most likely get nothing, yeah these are the people we should be hunting down and holding accountable.  Why should we bother to look at the legislators who create policies to keep the poor in their terrible situations?  Why shouldn't we compare our students performance to a country that only has 3% poverty?  Why don't we question why they choose to close schools in poor black neighborhoods instead of sending them more money to improve their buildings, professional development, practices and resources?  Why don't more people ask these questions?

Instead of complaining about it to people that already feel the same way I do, I think I will start to change the focus, and start to heal the teachers that have been so beaten down.  I will stand by them and protect them, but mostly I will help them to make such a difference, that if you were to speak negatively of Teachers and Education that it would only make you look ignorant.  I will stand tall with them, I will shout out what great things they do, and I will answer those naysayers with, "Really, because maybe you haven't seen or heard about this....."  Get ready reformers and naysayers, because I am about to show what AMAZING Teachers we have here in the US and more importantly, I will show you what they have taught our kids to do.  What have you taught them to do?