Welcome to September, which means slightly cooler weather, Johnny Appleseed, visits to the apple orchard, and amazing apple pies. For those of us who work in schools September also presents one of the most anticipated weeks of the school year: Parent-Teacher Conferences. It is well known that many parents and teachers communicate more consistently through e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook but the individual one on on conference is a sacred time in our year. Here are a few tips to help navigate your parent teacher conference, and help you leave feeling like you know everything about your child at school.
Be Prepared to Listen
Although fall conferences happen within the first quarter of the school year, your child’s teacher has gathered a lot of information and wants to share it with you. Teachers will share important progress indicators, these are usually not grades, to help you paint the picture of where your child stands within the same age and grade peer group. LISTEN! The progress indicators shared are many times more important than an actual grade. Take note to the expected performance for this time of year and where your child is performing. This is the type of data teachers use consistently to make decisions about learning experiences in the classroom. Sure, grades are important; however, unless you really understand what the grade represents there is little difference between an A or C. Many teachers will also share their insight on how your child is growing socially in the context of school.
Be Prepared to Ask Questions
You are going to have questions, and your teacher wants to answer them. Most often we hear parents report they feel like there is never enough time to ask their questions. My son’s teacher sent home a request for questions prior to the conference so she can ensure there is enough time to talk about what is important to us. If you have specific questions, communicate them prior to the conference. This is a big tip – a teacher can tailor the conference to your needs if there is information you want to discuss. You can do this via e-mail, voicemail, or write a note. In our school we have 15 minutes per conference, and I know that isn’t adequate time. I plan to prioritize the questions I have to make sure we have an opportunity to talk about my biggest questions. The rest can follow up in an e-mail, a follow up phone call, or an additional time to meet if necessary. Remember, teachers are available to you all year long!
Thank Your Teacher
Being a classroom teacher shouldn’t be thankless job. No matter what your questions or concerns, be thankful. Showing genuine gratitude for the work teachers do every day should never taken for granted. A simple, “Thank you for all you do!” means so much to a teacher. They definitely deserve it!
“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
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?