Monthly Archives: July 2014
In less than two weeks we welcome the students back for the start of another school year. As I prepare to return, refreshed and ready for another attempt at making our school the best place to work and learn, I attempt to stay a step ahead of the chaos that comes naturally with the launch of every school year.
I recently heard the author of “Water the Bamboo,” Greg Bell speak at a conference in Portland, Oregon. He began his keynote presentation with this statement, “Each and every one of you are a miracle.” It reminded me to think of how to begin each day focused on the miracles we serve in our school. Knowing myself pretty well I realize I am not naturally driven by the affective side of leadership. However, I do my best to learn and grow continuously which means I need to continue this year being more aware of the emotional needs of those I encounter. Mr. Bell also shared that he starts each day asking himself what is going well, personally and professionally. His point being that if we focus only on the negative we miss celebrating what is going well. He also ends his day with asking himself what went well. So, let’s try it. As we walk into a new school year, what is going well and where are the silver linings?
What is going well in our school and district? First, our teachers are professional, dedicated, and committed to our students. We’ve worked diligently to establish and maintain genuine professional relationships that blur lines of traditional hierarchy to ensure there are minimal barriers to student success. All stakeholders in the school community have input – administrators, teachers, parents, students, community members, etc. This has provided a multi-layered position of support for our teachers and our school. There is much work to continue in this area, but we’ve started a great process that will only have a positive return. In addition to our teachers, we have amazing students with so many talents including academics and beyond. By recognizing the talents beyond academics we are better able to address the education of a young person not just a test score. This is something that makes me extremely proud. Finally, our district is on the verge of something great. As we continue to break down barriers to our success and overcome obstacles that keep us from being the best school corporation in the state of Indiana. We have the potential, and we are getting one step closer each day.
If you’ve followed the professional dysfunction in Indiana you’ll know there is continuous conflict with our State Superintendent and the State Board of Education. I feel embarrassed for our state. The ugly, in my opinion, is the politics in education that serve a purpose other than making our children the priority. Whether you are Team Ritz or Team (everyone else but Ritz), it is a lack of professionalism and leadership that sets the tone for the climate of education in our state. It breaks my heart. I’d like to believe anyone invested in schools has the right intentions along with enough heart and passion to make the educational experience better for children, not to advance political agendas.
Have you ever seen the movie Silver Linings Playbook? Minus the vulgar language and the oddly fascinating love story, I connected to the idea of finding a silver lining no matter your situation. No matter what our situation, we find a way to do what is best for children. Millions of dollars of funding have been lost over the last five years to Indiana property tax caps and has caused many challenges at our local level. Yes, we are given less funding per child than the state average. Sure, we have class sizes that are way larger than we are comfortable with at most grade levels. No, we don’t have enough funding to support the type of technology to keep us innovative at all levels. Do we pay our teachers like we want to, absolutely not.
However, little is standing in our way of getting our job done. Our teachers make it work by showing up every day committed to our students. Individual schools and our district as a whole continue to score well on our state accountability tests and we provide a well rounded educational experience to provide a variety of programs from athletics to the performing arts. This is our sliver lining, what is yours?
Next Up: Tips for Launching an Effective School Year
“If you don’t prioritize your life, somebody else will.” Greg McKeown
Before boarding an airplane this spring, I stopped into a magazine and book shop looking for something to keep my interest during the flight. I stumbled on a book that drastically changed my professional perspective, and how I approach my daily work habits. Seriously. I think my closest colleagues may be a little tired of hearing about it. I just can’t stop sharing the knowledge I’ve gained from reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The many personal and professional lessons learned by reading this book can’t be shared in a single post! Instead, the essentialist theme will weave through my posts this school year demonstrating essentialism in action.
Why did I decide to buy this book at the airport? Inside the front cover it reads:
“Essentialism isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.”
Then you read four questions:
- Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin?
- Do you simultaneously feel overworked and underutilized?
- Are you often busy but not productive?
- Do you feel hijacked by other people’s agendas?
Answering “yes” to all the questions above, I was intrigued to learn more. McKeown defines essentialism as a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things look almost effortless. I am guilty of being the person who wanted to be involved in everything. Some closest to me would say I have a desire to control those things. While I agree to some extent, I also know that I am naturally curious and my commitment to schools was never narrow in scope. I wanted to know more about every detail of schools and the operational versus instructional side. I still do. Does that remind you of anyone in your professional circle? Something troubled me as I began to notice the aura I gave off to those around me. They approached me with a question and began to apologize for asking because they believed I was “too busy” or “juggling so many things right now”. Did I appear too busy to be supportive? What was I working on that made me appear this way? Was this work vital to the mission of our school?
Then it hit me. Flying at 35,000 feet and buckled into my seat, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was working on so many different projects that I wasn’t able to devote necessary energy to the tasks and the people that needed it most. I was doing everything but accomplishing very little. According to McKeown, “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.” This started a spring and summer of self study: essentialism in training. After finishing the book I realized I am a natural essentialist in many ways, and with a few adjustments in my approach to taking on projects and responsibilities I can be better at focusing my energy where it is needed most. I was challenged to identify areas in which I can make the highest contribution. With the help of great administrative colleagues, we have identified those areas:
- Development of the whole child – emphasis on positive behavior supports & enrichment experiences to enhance our curriculum
- Teachers: High Expectations & High Support – emphasis on observation cycles with specific feedback
- Parent Education & Support – emphasis on consistent and purposeful communication
McKeown was correct when he said, “everything changes when you give yourself power to choose.” The contrast between the non-essentialist and the essentialist is crystal clear. The non-essentialist believes “I have to” while the essentialist believes “I choose to.” While there are things we must do that will forever remain out of our control, the amount of energy we put toward those tasks will always remain our choice. McKeown shares that when we forget our right to choose we learn helplessness and fall prey to the priorities and agendas of others. Being specific and intentional about how to make the biggest impact, decision making becomes easier and connected to those specific areas.
“What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?”
I don’t know about you, I have a lot of life to live beyond the walls of my school. I am dedicated, committed, and passionate about my professional work. I also have two school age children who deserve a present and attentive mom. I have a husband who deserves a present and attentive wife. I have an extended family who deserve the same. I am challenged by the thought of less but better. I am excited to try it in action.
How will you become more like an essentialist in your role?
Next Up: Education: Searching for Silver Linings
At the end of every academic year teachers and principals reflect. Let’s be serious, we reflect for about thirty seconds on what went well and what we are proud of, and then we torture ourselves all summer over what we will do better next year. If you are anything like me, you think about it constantly and over analyze it to death. Questions like…How can I decrease the time it takes for teachers to submit data in a timely manner? How can we be more efficient with our student support team? How can we access necessary mental health programs for our students? In what ways can we be better overall? However, recently I have asked myself this question:
Is it me and my leadership style that needs to change to move our school forward?
It sounds a little selfish, I know. But really, how many times do you stop and think about yourself and the impact your behavior and actions have on others? I realized recently that I also welcome collaborative reflection as a part of my process. Allowing others to have input provides multifaceted perspectives I may not have considered. Using an individual and collaborative approach has helped me arrive at some very important conclusions for the future of our school.
Last year, we spent much of our professional development time establishing and modeling effective professional learning communities (PLC). Each of us took a version of the Meyers Briggs personality inventory. Some members of our staff had been involved in personality identification and training prior to this year; however, after finding out what their four letter combination there wasn’t much done with the information. Our teachers used their four letter combination to determine who they were individually as a professional. The next step was to take inventory of all the members of the PLC and identify a collective personality style. Finally, we spent time discussing how we give and receive information in the PLC setting and how that could be deterring our teams from our mission: to be the best for our students. As administrators we participated in the learning along with the teachers.
I learned my personality type is an ESTJ: The Guardian. After searching the web to find power words to summarize ESTJ’s here is what I found: objective, decisive, realistic, analytical, practical, dependable, organized, logical, responsible, and systematic. In knowing all of these things about myself, most of which I knew before this professional development activity, I have been more aware how others receive information I communicate to them. For example, we have an amazing teacher in our school. Her personality type is an ISFJ: The Nurturer. We had a really difficult time communicating simply because she wanted to be heard. I listened, but found I jumped too quickly to try to solve the problems she shared. Just knowing that about her, I was able to receive information from her without jumping to the analytical, take charge me to solve problems.
Back to my question:
Is it me and my leadership style that needs to change to move our school forward?
There may be a more self-aware version of myself leading this school year. I have read some terrific books over the last few months that have energized my passion for the challenges we face in schools. I know our teachers will recognize this renewed spirit as we begin the school year. My goal, rather than presenting a new me this year, is to be the type of leader who makes those around me better. I plan to do this by committing to be a better leader today than I was yesterday by using constant, honest reflection. How will you make this year better than last year?
Next Up: Why You Should Be Afraid of Pandas
How many of you operate on a balanced school calendar? We do, and its no secret how much I love the benefits! That said, there is one – and only one – major drawback.
Our first day of school is July 30th!
You heard me right. July 30th is our first day of school with students. We are fortunate enough to have our teachers with us for two work days prior to the students first day, so they return July 28th. Gone are the days when school began as summer ended. We’ve yet to have a 90 degree day in Indy, but summer is still in full swing. Here are a few tips to use to launch a successful school year, even if you are launching it in the summer:
Get organized – Make a commitment to organize your work flow, whether it is lesson plans or lesson observations. Ensure your environment, a classroom or office, is conducive for maximum productivity. If being organized isn’t something you are naturally driven to do, reach out to colleagues for tips and advice about how to keep one step ahead. This will decrease stress and anxiety!
Establish a classroom/school community – Establish clear expectations and allow students to contribute to the norms in your class. A highly effective teacher teaches children to self monitor choices and behavior while positively impacting those around them. In my experience, posting rules is a path to classroom management disaster. Instead, teach children to set class goals, and then reward them when they meet a goal together. Building classroom communities who make a positive impact upon each other is a way to focus on the development of the whole child and simulates what children are expected to do as they entire our global society.
Build relationships with students and families – Break home and school barriers by building authentic relationships with students and parents. Use your skill and training to help parents understand “school” ,and then give them tips on how to support their children for success in your class. All teachers and schools are a little different. Be clear and communicate with children, and their families, exactly what you expect. From my perspective in the office, many parents are doing the best they can. I have many families tell me exactly that! Once you’ve established a caring and trusting relationship, together you are a partner in helping their child grow and succeed.
There was a teacher I worked with in the past who only communicated negatively about many of her families. While she loved the children, she was judgmental and lacked empathy when speaking of their parents. My question to her was always, what could you recommend they do differently? How can you help them understand they are not helping their child be successful? Of course, there were no answers to these question on the part of this teacher. However, I believe those who do have answers create relationships where an entire family grows from the experiences with that teacher.
Build relationships with colleagues – Get involved in professional organizations and school activities to get to know your colleagues. The “grown ups” at work are those that will be there in happy times and carry you through the tough times. Some may think, “I don’t need friends at work!” Colleagues don’t have to be friends, but with a little mutual respect a professional friendship can be just want you need to grow and feel supported.
Celebrate – Take pride in your accomplishments and those of your students! Start each day asking what is going well and focus on the good. Make a commitment not to get caught up in things that didn’t go your way, and remind yourself that it is through failure when we learn and grow the most. Teach your children about taking risks and promise them you’ll love and support them if they fail. The idea of iteration, which is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result, will help children (and adults) understand that failing is a part of the learning process, and we always have an opportunity to make changes and try again.
Speak up and advocate – Don’t hesitate to tell school critics that you and your colleagues are doing a good job! Refuse to become any part of a conversation, in our out of school, where you aren’t sharing the positive. Negativity can divide an entire group or community, so see yourself as an advocate to spread the good word of our schools. Remember, your voice matters!
Just relax and remember that you are only one person, and you are doing the best you can. Most teachers put a great deal of pressure on themselves to be perfect. Keep that perfectionism in check as it has a tendency to negatively impact you and those around you. Finally, keep a sense of humor! To be most effective an educator has a sense of purpose and a strong passion to reach the goal. However, we lose many great teachers because they forget that play is a part of being successful with your students and colleagues.
Have a great start to your year!
Next Up: Innovative Classroom Instruction
Do you know a teacher? If you do please contact him or her right now to say thanks for all they do. The work they do provides so much to be proud of. You are probably asking, “Who are you?” and maybe something like, “Why should I thank a teacher?”
Most importantly I am a wife and mother of two amazing kids. My son just finished kindergarten, and my daughter will begin full day pre-school this fall. Professionally, I have been a classroom teacher, an instructional/reading coach, an elementary principal, and currently serve as an elementary school assistant principal. I will share more with you about each of these experiences in the future, but today I am here to begin a revolution. Let me introduce myself. Hello world! My name is Heather, and I am an educator. Wow, that sounds like an introduction to an education support group; maybe that is what we can be to each other.
As a little girl, I always knew I’d be a teacher. I’d come home from school and play school. I organized my stuffed animals and little brother into a class and played teacher. I didn’t come from a teaching family, which I always found an interesting question when asked. My father is the oldest of nine kids in a really fun Irish Catholic family, and while two of my aunts turned out to be amazing teachers, their decision to teach wasn’t an impact upon me. Sadly, I don’t have “that teacher” who made me want to be a teacher either. I had good teachers, don’t get me wrong, but being a teacher was just who I am meant to be. In high school I had a great friend and his parents were teachers. I remember stories she told me about how it was hard to be a teacher. She told me that if I wanted to have a life and be happy I should choose a different profession. I remember these conversations vividly, and her best attempts to talk me out of being a teacher eventually failed. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed by the smell of crayons, glue sticks, and freshly sharpened pencils. How many of you still get giddy over school supplies?
I don’t pretend to be in the trenches anymore. I fully believe the only people in the trenches are teachers. They spend their time working with the most important clients – OUR CHILDREN. Many times the voices of our teachers are silenced outside the classroom. Why is that? Why do those who do the most important work in our field have so little voice outside their classrooms? I’d be interested in hearing teacher’s responses to that question in the comments below. Since I haven’t been in the classroom for over five years, I don’t think I am at liberty to offer an answer because it will be an assumption based on observation and conversation, and let me tell you that we don’t need more second hand assumptions! While I observe the teachers and students in the trenches, I am not planning for instruction in the same way teachers are. I no longer see the light bulbs turn on when a child decodes a word or sentence well enough to comprehend. No, I am not the leader of that type of instruction anymore.
I am a leader of a different type of instruction. I lead teachers. I do my very best to minimize the micromanagement of teachers while providing them with the information and resources they need to be highly effective educators. Yes, I have responsibilities to plan and implement professional development, analyze and utilize instructional data, and maintain a learning environment that impacts more than academics, but I am a building administrator. That comes with the territory, and those are tasks I enjoy. I can address the data and defend test scores. There is a fine line between shared decision making and over delegation in schools. I strongly believe teachers should teach. Bottom line. Everything they do should be focused on kids. Everything. That is a priority for our school this year. We will increase the investment in the classroom while decreasing the external demands on our teachers, especially those that lack relevance and a direct impact to their professional craft. I’ve made my share of mistakes in that area, and I am still learning. I reflect often on how can we allow teachers to focus most of their energy on teaching. How do we help them learn to ask the right questions to create critical and creative thinkers instead of drilling the mastery of basic skills? Let’s allow teachers to think and ask really good questions in order to help students do the same.
Being an educator is (insert the slide here that flashes hundreds of words in a minute) an honor. One that I am realizing comes with much more individual responsibility than was ever shared with me during my undergraduate education, and even in graduate school. We focused on the how and why we teach and lead the way that particular university felt was right; however, we didn’t dwell on the fact that being a teacher is one of the most difficult, least respected, and intensely political career choices. Those of us who forge ahead in the daily operations of an actual school understand the challenges, while outsiders banter and argue over the wild world of educational reform, accountability, assessment and think they understand the monumental task placed on the shoulder of teachers. If education is the future of our children then we need to speak up, not to cause issue, instead; let’s provide insight. Let’s no longer allow second hand assumptions to drive decisions that impact our classrooms. I refuse. I have a voice, and after ten years in a profession I’ve thought more than once about leaving, I realize it is time to use my voice. My experience and opinion matter. It has to.
I know this: educators are in crisis at all levels. There are too many extraneous things to distract teachers and building leaders from the essential intent of school: TO TEACH KIDS TO THINK. Learning is a product of thinking. Did you know teachers, really great teachers, are leaving our profession? In my school district I am aware of a handful of excellent teachers who are leaving our classrooms to stay at home with their own children or find work in an area they can feel proud of. Did you hear me? Teachers are leaving education to find work they can be proud of! How did we find ourselves in a place where teachers aren’t proud to be teachers? This is a problem. How did we get here?
At home, one of our family values is “be a problem solver”. We have family meetings focused on how to be a problem solver in all areas of our lives: at home, at school, at the swimming pool and any other area that presents a problem (so…everywhere!). I ask my fellow educators: How are we going to solve this problem? The first step to solving a problem is to identify it. So, here is the plan in our school this year:
- Identify what is going well
- Identify our largest constraints. What keeps us from our mission of providing an education that encompasses academic, social, and emotional development for all children?
- Collaborate: divide, share, plan, solve
Sounds easy, right? So, teachers and principals, are you with me? How will we find a voice to help the climate of education focus more on student learning and less on ineffective tests and accountability? Let’s spread the word that teachers and school administrators are not intimidated by accountability, but we demand authentic assessments focused on growth of thinking skills rather than those focused on master of basic skills. How can we change the climate of education from the walls inside our schoolhouse? Muhammad Ali said, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Let’s take a big risk together. When our teachers and students return in the fall I will share with you our success and failures at solving our largest constraints. We can make a direct impact in our schools, and I’d love to hear how you work to solve yours. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s get started.
Next up: New Year Same You?