Sunday, April 10, 2016

3 Challenges to Leading and How To Overcome Them

Before I made the jump to administration, I rarely led professional development. I'd like to think that I had a lot to offer my peers. So although opportunities to lead PD were scarce, why didn't I ever take
the lead?

Honestly, it comes down to one word: FEAR.

Fear of Criticism
As a leader, even if it's just temporary position, your shortcomings are often highlighted and your strengths are overlooked. Public criticism, or even worse, behind-the-back critiques can be the norm. As an administrator, criticism comes with the job, and I remember my first principal telling me, "Expect it. Take it. Get out ahead of it." It comes with the paycheck. Self-awareness is a must.

But for teachers, this burden is often too much. An excellent and innovative teacher, whom I've known for more than a decade, never lets fear hold her back. She pursued innovation and the opportunity to lead, but far too often cynical peers lambasted her for her efforts. We shared the same ideas and principles, but honestly, she was either stronger or more stubborn than I was because, as a teacher, I never had the courage to put myself out there.

While she was often a lone crusader, even when you work as part of a team, you face criticism. I worked closely with a voluntary group of about a dozen teachers who were responsible for the school improvement team and professional development. These highly dedicated, innovative and student-centered teachers faced a barrage of criticisms from their peers for their plan, leaving many to question their own efforts.

Fear of Failure
Faced with uncertainty of their efforts, these teachers feared that their efforts might fail. When all The team by no means failed and the professional development model and school improvement plan were great successes. 
eyes are on you, the pressure mounts and the fear of failure rises. For driven educators, failure is the worst thing in the world.

When we lead, failure is imminent. If we don't ever fail, are we actually leading? The best we can do is own up to our own mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments. 

Fear of Innovation and Responsibility
Many organizations, including schools, have deeply embedded cultures that fear change and innovation.  In such organizations, mistakes are seen as failures. All feedback is seen as criticism. Growth goals are minimized to ensure they are easily met. Sadly, I worked for ten years in one school and over that time I saw little innovation; the status quo always won out. If the leaders didn't seek change, why should I lead the charge?

Without the support of leaders, teachers will never feel comfortable expanding their comfort zones and growing. In a culture of learning, risk-taking and growth are encouraged. The expectation should be for teachers to explore and innovate with an understanding that mistakes will happen but only through the process will growth and excellence be met.

I'm proud to say that I've become more comfortable taking risks, leading the way and no longer am I crippled by fear. I'm not sure why this is the case? Perhaps, it was the change in schools? Perhaps it was becoming an administrator? Or maybe, it's just been my own personal growth and the support and encouragement of others. Honestly, I'm probably also selling old-self a little short. Regardless, I hope to foster a culture of risk-taking and innovation where nobody is fearful.

Related blogs 
Administrators Role in Encouraging Risk-Taking
Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom Environment

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

5 Barriers to Innovation

What is best for the student?

Dedicated educators are constantly asking themselves this question as we strive to create innovative learning experiences for our students. We need--our students need--new ideas and inventions that fly in the face of the status quo and transform our schools.

While our education systems has made great strides in recent memory, we need to do more. So why aren’t we making the necessary innovations?

5 Barriers to Innovation

Isolation Many teachers believe, “I’m doing fine. My students are doing fine,” they shut their classroom doors and go about their business. Even the most reflective teacher, who remains isolated, lacks the ability to share and learn from others.

For many years, I was an isolated teacher, one who was successful but whose growth was limited by my isolation. I was perfectly content to shut my classroom door and teach. In truth, it wasn’t until I became an administrator that my perspective widened as I began observing and communicating with peers.

Budgetary Constraints  Expansive collaboration--like shared collaborative planning time--requires time and money and many innovative ideas require increased funding.
For ten years, I was part of a high-functioning  freshman transition team. As part of our vision, we wanted to go to 1:1 technology. Our school administration was on board, we asked the higher ups for money, but alas no money was available. We wrote grant or two. Again a no go. We gave up. Back to traditional paper and pencil teaching.
Risk Intolerance: A child’s future is in the hands of his/her teachers. A failed standardized test can mean a student doesn’t graduate. Of course, many teachers are either formally or informally judged based on their students’ test scores. School communities, including the families they serve, are not risk tolerant.

After taking my class, students took a state-mandated standardized test; for many of my students this was their best chance to earn a required social studies credit. I’m proud to say that my students did extremely well on the test. But, knowing the “importance” of the test, I was always reluctant to take a risk, weighing the risks vs the consequences, far too often I stuck with the status quo.

Fads Filled with cynicism, many teachers see the next wave of innovation as a fad. I heard one teacher exclaim, “I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve seen it all. Portfolios, technology, project-based learning. It’s all the same. It’ll come and it’ll go. Just like everything else.”

Innovative ideas, whether a fad or not, often complicate teachers’ work leading to disheveled implementation, dumbed-down instruction and ineffective instruction. Finding the appropriate balance between improvement and innovation

Control Who controls the decision-making in your school? In one system where I taught we were prohibited from straying from the state curriculum. Observing administrators opened up the state framework and tallied instructional time into three categories (black: directly related to the prescribed curriculum, white: outside of what should be taught, and gray: information that falls somewhere between black and white). Needless to say, “effective” teachers spent most instructional time in the black. Teachers were rewarded for PowerPoints that essentially copied and pasted from the state curriculum.

In writing this blog, I came across the stark realization that schools were not designed to innovate and are inherently risk avoidant. Innovation is risky, causing many people to run away from it and it’s almost become reflexive for many educators to say, “We’ve never done this before,” or “That won’t work.”

Too often we fall back on what is easy, what’s known or what’s comfortable.

We despiritedly ask, "Why bother?"

Innovation means working towards our ultimate goal of improving lives. Our mission as educators is to ensure each student reaches their potential, and we must constantly explore ways to ensure this happens. We must do what's best for our students. 

What are some barriers to innovation that you've experienced? Or better yet, that you've overcome?

Related Blogs
Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom 
Administrators Role in Encouraging Risk-Taking  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why Wait, Be More Dog

Our Compelled Tribe theme this week revolves around a presentation given by Jennifer Hogan and Craig Vroom at NASSP’s (National Association of Secondary School Principals) Ignite Conference: Be More Dog.

In the video a cat has a eureka moment; decides that his life is boring and takes on the role of a dog. In essence the cat stepped out of his comfort zone, did the unexpected, and was rewarded with a life of excitement by being more dog.

To dogs life is amazing
Carpe diem, grab the Frisbee
There are many things to explore and experience.

Like most of us, I’ve had a handful of Be More Dog moments where I’ve seized the moment, but most recently I took a new job in a new city. After two decades of living and working in Warrenton, Virginia a distant exburb of Washington, DC, I took an assistant principal position in Charlottesville, Virginia. While professionally the move was essentially a parallel move from one assistant principalship to another, I realized there were many new things to explore and experience both professionally and personally.

Like the life of a cat, my “previous” life was fine. I was comfortable--maybe too comfortable. But professionally I was ready for a new challenge. Personally, I was ready to hit the restart button.

My new position presented several unique opportunities. As Dr. Moran, my new superintendent, told me several times, “We do things differently here.” I left behind a very high-performing, but very traditional school, for one with more challenges but one that was always looking to push the envelope. Simply put, there’s a recognition in Albemarle County that the traditional way isn’t what’s best and risk-taking is encouraged. Of course, inherent to risk-taking are failures but by embracing this innovator’s mindset, Monticello High School is at the forefront of technology, non-traditional learning, maker spaces and so much more. This new professional chapter of my life, while being overwhelming at times, has been exciting.

Being recently divorced, the move meant being farther from my children and this weighed heavily in my “don’t move” thinking. But ultimately I saw the move as an opportunity to experience and explore. Honestly, I knew little of Charlottesville, other than it being about 2 hours away from my previous home. Friends spoke highly of it. A couple web searches revealed that for a small city, it played big. As John Wooden said, “It’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play,” and Charlottesville played big. Indeed, I’ve fallen in love with Charlottesville. 

Eight months in, I’m still learning, adjusting and improving. I’m glad I took the risk. The rewards have been incredible and I’m a better person because of it.

Why wait? Be more dog.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

10 Take-Away Statements From Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen

  1. 50% of student outcomes come from What a Teacher Does
  2. Learning is social. Half the class should be spent with social interaction, cooperative learning. 
  3. Students can only respond with emotions they know and have
  4. Students from lower socio-economic status are less likely to have positive interactions with their parents. In higher-income families the ratio of positive conversations to negative conversations was 6 to 1. The numbers shifted dramatically for middle-income families to 2:1 (positive to negative). For lower-income families, the ratio shifted to 1:2 (positive-to-negative). 3 to 1 is considered optimal for human growth. 
  5. Schools with low trust have a 1 in 7 chance of student growth in reading and math. Schools with strong climates of trust have a 1 in chance. 
  6. Building a strong working memory takes only 5-10 minutes of practice a day for 8-12 weeks. 
  7. Low SES students are more likely than their higher-SES peers to have auditory processing and language deficits. 
  8. There's no such thing as an unmotivated student; there are only students in unmotivated states, sitting in demotivating classrooms. 
  9. Teachers who score high in "life satisfaction," meaning they feel content with their personal and professional lives, are a whopping 43 percent more likely to produce significant achievement gains in the classroom than their less satisfied peers. 
  10. And as always: Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. 

Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Power of Teamwork

“A school community is like a ship. Everyone must be prepared to take the helm.” (Roland Barth)

Too few people realize that a group can accomplish what an individual alone cannot. Sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not prevalent in many schools. Despite all the challenges educators face, often we isolate ourselves. As a young teacher, I truly believed that I would make a positive difference in every student’s life--that I would be THE difference-maker, but I erroneously, and perhaps arrogantly, thought I could do it alone.

Despite my best efforts--I was always one of the first to arrive and the last to leave--by working in isolation, I limited my ability to advance as a teacher and thus hurt my students. I was too proud to ask for help (side note: I remember struggling with my junior/senior psychology class, which was made up of 24 female students and 1 male all of whom were just a couple of years younger than me, and seeking the advice of my administrators only to be rebuffed with flippant comments...that didn’t help change my perspective).

We cannot close our classroom doors and just go about our business, either fighting the battle by ourselves or scared to admit that we need help.

In my 7th year, my school began a freshman transition program. At the heart of the program was the collaborative planning time, an unfortunate rarity in American education. Teaching the most challenging students in the school, I soon realized that I could accomplish more and be far more effective if I was willing to share ideas, ask for help and offer support. Teamwork.

Almost by luck, we each brought our own diverse styles to the team.
  • The pleaser: This teacher was all about his students’ emotional well-being. He didn’t see himself as a subject-matter teacher and would sacrifice instructional time to talk to students. He focused most of his energy on getting to know his students and their lives outside of the classroom. Of course, knowing this, his students often purposefully side-tracked him so teaching and learning became secondary, but his students also confided in him.
  • The professional: This teacher enjoyed teaching and saw each lesson plan as a personal challenge. He was a practitioner who applied data and research-proven strategies to teaching. While recognizing the need to build relationships with students, instruction sat in the front seat.
  • The pragmatist: This teacher was new to the profession and entered the teaching profession to make a difference but also to have time with her young children. She was the person who would just sit in our meetings, not say much, and just soak up the information.She was even-keeled, consistent and rational.
  • The regular: This teacher was straight-down the middle. He was old-school, loved his subject and had seen it all. While he loved his job, he rarely showed emotion (positive or negative) as he’d seen it all.

While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, together we made an exceptional team (by the way I was the “professional”). While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, like most teachers, we shared an overarching desire to ensure the success of our students. The experience of collaborating with these teachers, strengthened me as a teacher. I focused more energy on building relationships with every student. I became a better listener and asked questions that I didn’t have the answer to. I learned that when we isolate ourselves, we limit our success.

Over the next ten years, many teachers cycled through the freshman transition program. The success of our teaching--and ultimately, our students--hinged on our ability to lean on each other and share ideas.  Through teamwork and collaboration, we build meaningful connections, reducing our stress and improving student outcomes. Only once we establish an expectation of teamwork and connectedness, will each staff member view themselves as something larger and greater.

“Coming together is a beginning. 
Keeping together is progress. 
Working together is success.” 
~Henry Ford

I’d be remiss, if I didn’t give a shout-out to some of the high functioning, highly successful teams I’ve been part of including administration teams to our RTI team to the School Improvement team, and many of the teams I coached.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reflections from EdLeader21

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the EdLeader21 Conference in Dallas, Texas. Whenever, an educator attends a conference--at least one that's halfway decent--it's tempting to go back to school the next day and try to implement anything and everything. Of course, this leads to failure. Fortunately, Ken Kay and the EdLeaders seem to understand that as they challenged us to grab low-hanging fruits and to plant seeds.

As a new assistant principal, I've already made some small tweaks, but I'm still seeking to understand my new school, so I surely won't be very aggressive when I return to school on Monday.

Low-hanging fruit
I oversee our school's SBIT (School-based Intervention Team, part of our RTI process) and want to ensure we do a better job of understanding the needs of students referred to this team. So, I've developed a quick survey that students can complete online or on paper to better understand their needs. This will help us personalize learning experiences and increase student learning.

Harder to reach fruit
Our PLC's are at different places for a variety of reasons, so these goals will be differentiated. 
  • Use PLC's to answer, To what extent does our teaching emphasize the 4 C's (Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking)? What percentage of our assessments require the 4 C's? 
  • Challenge PLC's to ensure we make the shift from acquisition of knowledge to a deeper understanding and application of skills and knowledge?
At the EdLeader21 Conference Tony Wagner stated, "Isolation is the killer of innovation." From the teacher side, we must provide time and resources for our PLCs to innovate. Additionally, our teachers are doing some great things within their classrooms, but too often they're doing things in isolation. I'd love to see our teachers publicize these great things and open their classrooms to their peers. In addition, I hope teachers will open their classrooms to their peers, so that we can continue to learn from each other. 

Examine how we can turn professional learning opportunities into a collaborative and creative process by providing teachers with choices but ensuring it is student-driven and research-based. I'm exploring use of badges and a monthly challenge. 

Planting seeds
Explore ways to develop project-based learning to ensure our students receive a coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum that engages them in the 4 C's. 

Give students more control over their learning so students are engaged in their learning rather than merely complying with school, district and state requirements?

Challenge PLCs to develop means of increasing student choice and examine how we assess our students with a move towards project-based learning, portfolios, and culminating assessments. 
Explore ways that we can expand our internship and individual research programs 

I challenge myself to constantly evaluate How students experience learning at Monticello High School? Is the teaching and learning aligned with our standards and the 4 C's? 


Of course, none of this will be possible without the dedication and hard work of our committed and forward-thinking faculty and staff. I'm fortunate to be surrounded by educators who understand we can't continue to use test scores as the major means of assessment, whether they be state end of course tests or classroom tests, and we will not be able to refocus ourselves unless we focus on the 4 C's because they are what really matter.

While state standards and their corresponding tests represent hurdles, as educators if we follow the 4 C's (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking) we will Embrace Students, Inspire Learning and Innovate Opportunities.