Friday, December 31, 2010

Solitude and Leadership

I read a great essay a week ago, "Solitude and Leadership" By William Deresiewicz in American Scholar magazine. It is based on a speech he gave to cadets at West Point. It is really worth the time to read and makes a few key points. We need original thinkers in leadership positions. To be an original thinker with vision, a leader needs to find some time to be alone and comfortable with new thoughts. A final point he makes is that multitasking is extremely detrimental to the kind of thinking a visionary leader needs to do.

Two quotes:
  • "For too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don't know how to ask them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they are worth doing in the first place...What we don't have in other words are thinkers...people, in other words, with vision."
  • Multitasking with technology, TV, newspapers, etc. is "just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that human beings throw in your way."
So, a few thoughts as I head into this new year.

I want to multitask less. For me, that means being more thoughtful about how I use my time (and looking at my iPhone less).

I want to read more complete books and less snippets of things.

I want to take time for solitude.

I want to deal with the difficult and troubling questions head on.

This essay is worth a read, it has a lot more to say than this post gives it credit for.

Happy New Year!

Instructional Rounds at Greer

I am inspired to write this blog because of Pam Moran's wonderful post "Spring of Hope" and then @chadsansing's tweet response to it:" piece on where we are, what we need 2 do: share, believe, act me: devil is in the how, what, & why".

I never pretend to know all of the answers to hard questions like Chad's but I love exploring potential answers in my work as a principal.

Greer Elementary is in school improvement with the Virginia State Department of Education and one of the things we need to do as a result is write a school improvement plan with the VDOE. They empower us at the school level to choose 5-7 improvement strategies from a list of a couple of hundred. One of the strategies is to develop a system of peer observations in the school. We chose this strategy for some simple reasons: it was a lot better than some of the other ones, it had real potential to change culture in our school, and I was personally tired of paying lip service to peer observations every year and never really implementing them.

So with the leadership of our instructional coaching team at Greer, Ken Ferguson and Sue Harris, we dove into the book Instructional Rounds. Ken has especially been instrumental in leading the effort of rounds in our building from developing our unique philosophy behind it and working out all of the details.

A couple of choice quotes from the book:

  • "The rounds process is an explicit practice that is designed to bring discussions of instruction directly into the process of school improvement. By practice we mean something quite specific for observing, analyzing, discussing, and understanding instruction that can be used to improve student learning at scale. The practice works because it creates a common discipline and focus among practitioners with common purpose and set of problems."
  • "The process of rounds requires participants to focus on a common problem of practice that cuts across all levels of the system."
  • "You improve schools by using information about student learning, from multiple sources, to find the most promising instructional problems to work on and then systematically developing with teachers and administrators the knowledge and skill necessary to solve those problems."
  • "Language is culture. Culture is language. How people talk to each other about what they are doing is an important determinant of whether they are able to learn from their practice."
The book is powerfully written and gets at what it calls the core of interaction between student, teacher, and curriculum. It provides some vignettes of fictional schools that have looked at data until they were collectively blue in the face without ever really analyzing how they interact around the core in the classroom. So, we adopted instructional rounds as one of our strategies.

Here are some of our rounds strategies unique to Greer:

  • Every single teacher and administrator is involved in rounds. We decided against piloting. We are all in. If we ever want to make teaching public at Greer, we could not have this be an opt in event.
  • Every teacher gets coverage two hours a month to practice observing from video and then spending time observing in different classes.
  • We have focused relentlessly on having everyone practice non-judgmental feedback. It is a harder skill to learn than people think.
  • The teacher involved in rounds on a given day debrief after school.
  • We took feedback from every teacher after a few months of rounds and had the school improvement team do old fashioned sorts and wordle sorts with the info to come up with our school challenge of practice. Our challenge of practice- how to improve as a school at checking for understanding multiple times in a lesson.
I am pretty realistic person. Not everyone in our school sees rounds as a wonderful, transformational process. Some see it as a waste of time. Some like it. It is very different than just about everyone's experience either teaching at Greer or at any other school. Most schools do not develop systematic procedures for peer observations. But, we are sticking with it. I personally see it as a three-four year culture changer. It will take a long time to really affect change.

PLC meetings can get old. For those of us schooled in the Dufour model, we can sometimes look at test data every which way til Sunday and still never really talk instruction in a meaningful way. Rounds helps get at it.

But one caution. Although the book is written more for division rounds teams, the first few chapters are essential for understanding the process. Rounds are not walkthroughs. Rounds are not observation checklists. Do not implement the process if you are just doing that because you will not change culture in a building. "Language is culture, culture is language" and we cannot make that phrase meaningful until we foster powerful conversations among a staff around what is actually happening in the classroom.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Some Notes from Chris Lehman's talk on the Educator's PLN: Progressive Schools Need Systemic Structures

In some quiet moments in my office this week with our students out for winter break, I have had the chance to listen to @chrislehman 's talk on the Educator's PLN and I picked up some interesting ideas that either validated what we are doing at Mary Carr Greer Elementary or challenged me to think about where we are as a school. Chris is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia which is a progressive, magnet high school. Our school is elementary and just plain regular public. We are in the midst of an overall change/improvement process using the core ideas of both Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. While I do not use the terms progressive or traditional very much, we are definitely on a path as a school to increase the level and spirit of community and the level of engagement with our students and our teachers.

So, here are the ideas or quotes from Chris:
  • "Progressive schools need systemic structures". It is a simple yet powerful quote. Greer right now is struggling with implementing learning expeditions, student led conferences, and new technology while maintaining our assessment model among other things. I firmly believe that we need systemic structures to flourish as a school but I am also realizing that we are not close to having them yet. We will have them but it will take time. We need to develop systemic structures for our planning of instruction, delivering it and also our assessing of our student learning.
  • "A common language of teaching and learning drills down to the process...The way we talk about project based learning and inquiry is the same across all teachers." With systemic structures comes a common language and vision for teaching and learning. I find myself hearing "common language bla bla bla" coming from many educators but I don't often see it. I don't often see it because I know how hard it is to accomplish in my own school. It takes a hell of a lot of work and is hard and maybe harder to do in a regular public school. I know it is worth every ounce of effort.
  • Grade levels have essential questions, the school uses a common lesson planning format, teachers work over the summer to develop these. We have made some amazing steps with this work at Greer but again have a long way to go. Our last summer retreat with our staff had each grade developing essential questions in social studies and science through some intensive work. We had that time because of the quirk of making up a vast amount of snow days. How do we find a way to do that this school year? An individual school will not grow without this intensive summer work.
  • A committee structure guides all of the work at the school. We are in our second year of a committee structure at Greer and again, have seen some amazing growth with it. I also feel that it is probably two or so more years away from getting really powerful. This work takes a long time!
  • The school requires a unit plan for teaching interviews. When a teacher is scheduled to come for an interview, they are given every piece of information about the school in advance so there are no surprises. They are also told to design a unit given what they know about what the school believes about teaching and learning. Hiring is always a consensus decision. I have generally been a good recruiter and hirer of teachers but I think this would be a great advance for us at Greer. It would be more in depth and more democratic.
  • "Our school is a hard place to work"- I love this quote. Greer is also a hard place to work. It used to be hard because we had the most students coming from poverty of any school in our entire district. It is now becoming a hard place to work because we have such high expectations of ourselves. We are getting there, but like everything else, we have a long way to go. And a hard place to work does not also mean fun, joyful, supportive and caring as I am sure it is at SLA.
So, I loved listening to the talk after the fact and it has me inspired for 2011! My main goal from the talk is to find ways to add and grow systemic structures for the kind of teaching and learning we want to take place in our school.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In Memory of My First Mentor: My Mom

I have not posted in a few months with I guess would be good reasons. My mom Carolyn died quite suddenly in late October and the fatigue from that experience left little time for wanting to post on my blog. I also returned to the usual busy of school and dissertation work which left little mental energy for blogging.
We were able to celebrate Carolyn’s life with a beautiful service and remembrances written by my two sisters and me. The one thing I have not had a chance to pay tribute to is my relationship to my mom as a teacher. So, here goes.
Carolyn had and still has an enormous influence on my career as an elementary teacher and now an elementary principal. She taught mostly third and fourth grade for a total of 28 years (she stayed home with us kids until we started kindergarten) in a suburban Chicago school district. My first memories of mom as a professional teacher were of how hard she worked. I knew this as a child because she would spend lots of time planning on weekends and on school nights. I also knew it because she would be tired on many weeknights from putting so much into her teaching day. My parents were both hard workers and took their professions very seriously but they were always there for us kids as well. They were amazing role models. I will always remember in junior high watching the show MASH on Monday nights with my mom. By the end of the show, she was always asleep on the couch from that hard Monday at school.
My senior year in college, I decided to try to become a teacher. While I was not sure if I wanted to do it as a career, I wanted to at least give it a try. While going through this process, my mom was enormously proud of me. I knew it because she would tell me all of the time. Many public school teachers discourage their children from going into the profession. Carolyn took the exact opposite approach. She talked to me often during those decision making times and was supportive throughout. She viewed teaching as the most important job you could do. And with that view, she was honored that her son would think about following her in the profession.
I taught fourth grade in Baltimore City Public Schools my first year of teaching. That year my mom was also teaching fourth grade. She was my first professional mentor. Our classrooms may not have had a lot in common, hers was mostly white and middle class, mine was mostly poor and African American, and our level of proficiency was vastly different, she was a master teacher, I was just surviving, but despite all of that we still managed to have frequent professional conversations. We talked about reading instruction, classroom management, dealing with principals, and probably more important, dealing with teachers’ unions. Through those conversations a few things carried through: the importance of planning and hard work, the power of a good book with a class or individual student, and always with mom, having a sense of humor about things.
She helped me out in material ways those first few years as well. In trips home, I would go over to her school during some “off hours” and load up my Ford Escort station wagon with “gently used” sets of books from her school’s book room and slightly faded construction paper that was deemed unusable by her school. I would often bring so much back to Baltimore that I would share this bounty with my team mates.
I will always remember that we both taught Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli to our fourth graders as a read aloud and I was always fascinated by how much both of our groups of students, despite all of their differences, just loved that book.
After five years of teaching, I decided to move into administration with a first step in the graduate program at the University of Virginia. I think she was a bit nervous about this move. I was young, and in her view had probably not taught long enough to become a principal. Despite these misgivings, I will never forget her one bit of advice she gave me before my first assistant principal job. She said, “Matthew (she always called me that), never ask your teachers to do anything that you would not do yourself.” Good advice, all could probably agree, and it has had an amazing impact on me throughout my career. Often when I am struggling with a decision, or with the direction my school needs to take, I think about those words and I can always hear my mom’s distinct voice saying them. The words have helped my leadership style because although I have high expectations and want great things for the schools that I have worked in, I also know that every action we take is an enormous human enterprise with people watching me to see if I will roll up my sleeves and do it too. Since that start, I have had the chance to introduce myself to two different staffs as a new principal. One of the first things I always say to the group of people that I am about to start working with is that my mom was a teacher.
My mom and I talked school quite a bit. I will miss those talks greatly. I will also miss my Virginia snow day tradition. Whenever we had a snow day, I would call my mom and let her know and she would always say the same thing, “How do you all ever accomplish anything in that school district?” She was a teacher in Chicago, where there is never a snow day.
The last professional gift my mom gave me sadly came at her funeral. As I stood at the receiving line, in the midst of receiving condolences from old friends , family, and strangers, I got to meet some of her old students. The meetings were quick but the students would always say the same thing, “ your mom was the best teacher I ever had”.
The impact of a teacher goes farther then we can ever imagine. All of Carolyn’s hard work, planning, and patience was worth it. I don’t think she ever had any doubt about that though. I just hope I can continue to live up to my first mentor’s example. Thank you Mom for everything!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

It's all about building culture

I have been mulling over the theme "reconciling standards with 21st century learning" for a few weeks now, or to be honest, for the last sixteen years or so (I have been in education for seventeen years). The first year of teaching, there was no mulling or reflecting, just surviving.

Since I an relatively new to the world of blogging and tweeting, I thought I would first tell a brief bit about myself and so you could put my thoughts into some sort of context. I began my teaching career in a very large, urban elementary school in the early nineties as a Teach for America teacher. I absolutely loved it, became a certified teacher, and stayed for a total of five years at my placement school, three years beyond the two year commitment most TFA members serve. I served at my school during an interesting time period because I taught there before there were any sort of state standards and while I served standards were put into place by the state of Maryland. I have to be honest, I am not anti-standards in any way, shape, or form. Before standards were instituted, my school was the education version of the wild west. Everybody just did their own thing and there certainly was no sheriff in town to keep things orderly. I survived on some old textbooks, an educator's library card from Baltimore County that allowed me to check out vast amounts of books, and my wits. My colleagues, once they saw I was not a quitter (which was well into my second year of teaching) started to help me too.

Toward the end of my tenure in Baltimore, standards were put into place. I felt a certain a sense of relief that I did not have to come up with everything myself. I also liked that I had some sort of measure to strive for with my students. I also knew our school, with new leadership along with the state standards, began to take the education of poor, minority children much more seriously than they had before.

Fast forward ten years and I am now an elementary principal in Albemarle County, Virginia in a school that is a majority minority school with two thirds of our students qualifying or free/reduced lunch. I was placed in the school, my second as principal, to "turn it around". Turning a school around, in case you have not been reading anything for the past five years or so essentially means getting those test scores up. My first year at the school in 2007, I was confident I could raise those test scores from I guess my sheer presence. That first spring, the test scores actually went down.

That began the major "aha" moment that has carried me through the last three years of leading my school. With the scores going down that year, we qualified for a school improvement grant from the state and used some of the money on some powerful staff development the folks from Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. What I started to learn that year from this professional development that I experienced with our staff was that it was all about building our culture and it was not just about test scores. Sure, we went on to significantly raise our scores two years ago (with a dip in reading this past year) but we started to make some intentional changes in our community of learners, adults and children, that have allowed us to attempt the reconciliation between 21st century learning and the standards movement (for the purposes of this post, 21st century learning standards equals our work with expeditionary learning, hands on learning, authentic products, public audience etc.)

So now, a few years later, our school is on a continual path of working deeply and thoughtfully with state standards in a way to make them meaningful to 21st century learners, our students. We have a long way to go in the process, but I have learned some things along the way as a leader that I think, helps support teachers in public schools to deal with the tests and also make learning engaging and meaningful.

  • All learners in the building must have social and emotional needs attended to through respect and basic human kindness. Our work through Responsive Classroom has been powerful and transformative and has taught us that adult learners have a need for support and connection as much as kids do. Most of our meetings have some sort of connective time that allows to value each other or just plain have fun.
  • To borrow a phrase from Bob Sutton, the principal must serve as a "human shield" from this awful world of punishment and corrective action that we experience with NCLB. A true leader never uses threat and "if we don't get the scores up bad stuff is going to happen" kind of language with a staff. Of course, I have probably resorted to this a time or two over the years, I am human and have been in a high stress position. But as soon as a staff is threatened, innovation and change end. And I have not done it in a long time.
  • The leader must model not only good quality instructional practice, but also be completely honest when things go wrong. When you ask a staff to innovate, mistakes will happen all of the time. They are wonderful mistakes, and they will happen a lot, but mistakes must be seen as reflective opportunities and we must model that constantly. People will want to take more risks when they see a leader or colleague to the same. When I lesson plan a meeting, and the lesson does not go according to plan or was just plain bad, I admit it. That can be a powerful thing.
  • Leadership must be distributed throughout the school. I am lucky to work with a very powerful group of people. I used to try and make all or most of the decisions, and I did it poorly. Now, we are creating structures to tap into the real leadership that is evident throughout our building and are helping us to build a culture of honesty and collaboration at a level that I have never experienced before. In a committee meeting just two days ago, teachers were having a lively and spirited discussion about what true achievement in math really means in an elementary school. If that comes from me in a meeting, it is about a tiny fraction as powerful as it is when it happens among colleagues.
  • A leader needs to set in place feedback loops from both parents and staff that help keep us on course and also help us realize where we are not communicating very well. Everything always makes perfect sense in my head. My first year at my current school, everything was in my head and no one had any sense of what was wanted. Beginning this fourth year, I am trying relentlessly to see if people are understanding all of the goals and trying to get feedback about where we are in terms of that communication.

A good leader of a public school in this country is in constant reconciliation mode between standards and 21st century learning. If you put supportive, honest, and strong structures in place to help everyone in the building learn and take risks, I firmly believe that we can live well with the standards without losing engagement and deep understanding. It is a long hard journey, but in my mind, the only one worth taking.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lesson Planning for Administrators

In my seventeen years in education as a teacher and administrator, I have taken part as a participant or a leader in hundreds or even thousands of meetings. As a principal, I would always really plan with participating teacher leaders any sort of staff development that was offered at my schools over the years. These staff development sessions would include pre-service week meetings and school based staff development days. But these staff development sessions were only a fraction of our time together. We would also spend a large amount of time in "meetings". For meetings, I would prepare an agenda, with letters on the side and if I was really organized, time allotments next to the items. Sometimes we would do a reading and have a great discussion in these meetings, but they still felt like meetings.

In the past three years, I have been very lucky be a part of my school's involvement with both Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. Every time I have ever taken part of any sort of staff development or meeting with folks from either of these organizations, the time together is as well planned as a master lesson from a strong teacher. In fact the meetings have a very powerful feel, time is well spent and purposeful. Everyone who attends is asked to participate and that participation is valued. I have learned greatly from this experience.

Learning only really happens if it causes new action of some sort. During these past years, I have planned some of my meetings, but this year I am committing to lesson planning every single meeting I lead and sharing my lesson plans ahead of time with the participants so I can get feedback. These lesson plans will include learning targets, both short term and long term, focused reading and structured discussions, and maybe most importantly they will lead to some sort of committed action. These are all strategies that we our teachers are working on so I need to do the same.

It is perhaps embarrassing to say that I am really coming to this in my tenth year as a principal. Already though, it has me more excited for our meetings and I think our teachers are more engaged.

I know I need to find more ways to use Assessment for Learning strategies in my meetings so that will be a goal of mine as the year goes. It is a motivating and empowering to realize that every time we meet should be well planned and thoughtful.

It also makes it hard when I attend meetings outside of my school that use the typical agenda outlines with times attached. But hopefully I can find ways to influence that as well as the year goes on.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Leadership Thoughts from Netflix

Reading Dan Pink's blog this morning, and then looking at the Netflix slide deck shared on the blog, got me thinking about a question posed to me a month ago in a school leadership class at the University of Virginia that I was visiting as a practioner. A student in the class asked me a classic question, "when trying to turn around low performing schools, what works better, the carrot or the stick?" Since I don't come to visit graduate level classes very often, I stumbled around for a while before answering, "neither". I know, I was not very impressed with that answer either.

So in typical fashion for me, that question has been stewing around for quite a while with the thought of trying to blog about it. It took some thoughts from the leadership at Netflix to get me writing this morning. Here are some choice quotes from the slides:

"The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than by trying to control their people."

When things go wrong, "ask yourself, what context did you fail to set?"

"When you are tempted to control your people, ask yourself, what context you could set instead. Are you articulating and inspiring enough about goals and strategies?"

And finally, "high performance people will do better work if they understand the context."

I love all of these quotes because I think they get at the ideas that truly define leadership. It is about building culture (I word I do use a lot) communally, and about setting context (I word I don't use but will now) or another way of putting it is it is all about framing things for people.

The thing I also love about the quotes/philosophy of Netflix is that it puts the responsibility to respond and reflect on the leader. If things are not going well, how can I communicate better, is a question I typically ask myself. I am not always sure other leaders in education do the same.

There is a lot of "blame the teachers and principals" in the current education policy world and blogosphere. As a principal in a building, I always cringe when I hear other administrators talk badly about teachers in any sort of way. Teachers, any sort of employee or humans in general, are largely creatures of their context.

In my school division, we are in the midst of pre-service time for teachers. It is THE Time to set up context for the staff.

What contexts have we tried to set up a Greer during this time?
  • Shared and distributed leadership
  • Shared focus on instruction
  • An "all out" effort to reach our community
  • Giving people some time to wrestle with our school improvement goals and strategies
We will see over time this year how successful we are with these contexts. I will be able to see through implementation in the classrooms. I will be able to see through carefully looking at feedback loops from both staff and community. And I will have to keep asking myself the tough questions when things do not go well, like, "where did I go wrong in setting the context?"

Here's to a great school year at Greer and schools everywhere!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Power and Potential of Planning

There are lots of cliche/quotes about planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail comes to mind. Or the planning is more important than the plan. Which, is a quote/cliche I actually like. But, needless to say, the word planning really gets no one excited in the world of education reform. It is, however, an extremely powerful action that would help us bring the "change" in education that we want.

At our school, we try to plan more than the normal school. We have an annual retreat in June where teachers work together to either plan instruction or fine tune the school improvement plan. This summer, I also have spent several powerful days planning with our assistant principal and instructional guides trying to plan leadership retreats, our pre-service week agenda, and our school improvement plan. I still feel like it is not enough. We need time to plan our work together. And we don't seem to have the resources to plan enough.

Our highly progressive, high functioning school system has a June and August leadership retreat where we review goals for the school year and learn new leadership strategies. They are powerful days but nowhere near enough. We need time to work through some of our improvement issues together as a leadership team, but we don't have the time.

One of my summer reads, Quiet Leadership by David Rock, says that "to take any kind of committed action, people need to think things through for themselves."

When we plan together, we can plan learning activities that engage all of the activities in our school so we can think through things for ourselves. We just need to rethink our use of resources to make things like this happen.

If a school continues with the "summer off" method of scheduling, teachers and school leadership teams should have several weeks of planning to make the kind of powerful changes we don't see enough in classroom instruction. During summer time, or some other off time, people have the mental space to think through things for themselves, in order to change.

That does not really happen the way we want it to, because we do the majority of our planning on the fly when we all have a million things going on during the school day or after school.

I don't think change will start occurring until we start to rethink the way we structure adult learning in our schools. Give me the resources to gather teachers for a few weeks every summer.

And I will stop bothering everyone.

Monday, May 31, 2010

In the Trenches Part II

I regularly read Bob Sutton's blog called "Work Matters". Bob is a business professor at Stanford and I love what he has to say about leadership and the workplace. He created the following list of twelve things that good bosses believe and bad bosses ignore.
  1. I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.
  2. My success — and that of my people — depends largely on being the master of obvious and mundane things, not on magical, obscure, or breakthrough ideas or methods.
  3. Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day.
  4. One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough.
  5. My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.
  6. I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong.
  7. I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong — and to teach my people to do the same thing.
  8. One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is "what happens after people make a mistake?"
  9. Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.
  10. Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
  11. How I do things is as important as what I do.
  12. Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.
It is a powerful list because he has a way of clearing through all of the b.s. that is out there about leadership and distilling what we need to do as bosses and leaders in order to be effective.

I especially like number 2 and 3. Education is rife right now with policy theories and debates, especially in regards to what will make the American education system better. I know the policy world does not work this way, but what if we started to focus on supporting and developing school district leaders and school principals who try to do embody the twelve beliefs above. I don't pretend to embody all twelve myself. Anyone who works for me will tell you that I get some a lot better than others. That is why my focus is on number two and three on the list.

To lead my school well, I need embody both of those ideas. What does that mean? It means that I need to refine my instructional leadership and be a better evaluator, supervisor, and frankly, a better teacher. It means that I can have all of the big ideas I want but if I don't try to create the vision with the staff through thousands of small wins in our actions, the big ideas mean nothing.

I have a habit of trying to escape "the trenches" by getting into the world of ideas too much. This mainly happens through books, blogs, and simply thinking about how great things would be if all of the wonderful ideas in my head just simply became reality. Ideas are important, but without action, they are meaningless. Our school is in the early process of trying to change mid course into an Expeditionary Learning School. Everyone in the school has a slightly different idea of what means and some are much more excited about it than others. For a long time, the idea of an Expeditionary Learning School was simply an idea in my head. Now, it ever so slightly is starting to become a reality. But I am now realizing, in the day to day moment, it loses its power as a big huge goal and idea. Where the power resides is in the day to day actions of individuals at our schools who do something just a little more engaging with their students than they did before, and who expect to be a part of decision making and that their feedback is heard, and who create and recreate community each and every day through our morning meetings and circles. At this moment, that is the idea of Expeditionary Learning for me. I am also learning that it is becoming the idea of Expeditionary Learning for a growing number of our staff.

So to get reestablished back into the trenches and do some real work to make this happen, what am I to do? I need to get better at mastering the day to day workings of my school, be a better evaluator, give better feedback, or just simply give some feedback, and I also need to find ways to root out the negative that gets in the way of our best teachers from trying to implement the vision of Expeditionary Learning. I also need to become a better teacher. I need to do my job as boss, and do it very well, but I also need to become a better teacher, or better put, not forget that a large aspect of my job is teacher.

So yes, this "in the trenches" thing does not appear to be going away anywhere. I guess it is just my state of mind in this moment of my life. It is simply my way to validate what I do, and choose to do every work day morning (and many weekend ones as well). The trench work of helping to lead a school and hopefully help to make it just a little bit better every day and every year that I am there. And believe me, there is a lot of hope in that last statement.

Bob Sutton's list has so much meaning to me because he gets it. It is the thousand of little things I do or not do as a leader that makes the difference to the people I work with and the students they touch. I expect there will be more ruminations on Bob's work in the coming weeks if I find time.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

On the value of being (and staying) in the trenches!

On the value of being (and staying) in the trenches!

Of course, the metaphor of “in the trenches” is a bit extreme, but I imagine in every profession it exists. In my case, the metaphor stands for people who stay in schools to work with kids, parents, and teachers. Once you leave to work in central office, the university, or a non-profit, you have left the trenches of building level work. I need to start by saying that I find many folks in central office helpful and sometimes inspiring, deeply value the close work I do with a couple of professors at the university level, and am constantly impressed by some of the new education non-profits that seem to be sprouting all over these days. So, this is not an “us vs. them” dichotomy.

But when you live in the trenches, life can be tough sometimes. When we are working in a school day in and day out, we can deal with volatile emotions and behaviors that sprout up at a moment’s notice and come from unexpected directions. Our valuable think time and less valuable paper work time is done late into the evening or on weekends. That is just the way it goes I guess. So every once in a while, when you are in the trenches, motivation is important. I found two great examples recently.

One is the example of Principal Mike McCarthy of King Middle School in Portland, Maine. Mike has been the principal of King for a couple of decades and has implemented Expeditionary Learning during his time there and transformed it into a model school. His list of ten “must do’s” for school leadership are totally quirky and honest, a hallmark of someone in the trenches doing the work. I love number six on the list: Take Responsibility for the Good and the Bad
“If the problems in your school or organization lie below you and the solutions lie above you, then you have rendered yourself irrelevant. The genius of school lies within the school. The solutions to problems are almost always right in front of you.”
That is the creed of the “in the trenches” principal. We have no job description, really, except that we take responsibility and help people to figure out the way through issues.

Mike’s work has supported and validated me for years in a vicarious manner. Years ago, while teaching in Baltimore, Jeannette’s school worked with Mike and his teachers on developing interdisciplinary units. That was my first introduction to Expeditionary Learning and I have had the dream of implementing this kind of education for years and am now finally starting to do it. Mike also inspires me because he has stayed at his school for so long. In the world of education leadership and policy, many of us are constantly looking for the next job, promotion, speaking gig, whatever instead of focusing in on what really matters. Mike, obviously a talented leader, chose to stay. We need to recognize people like that more often.

My second bit of inspiration comes from someone outside of the trenches, Richard Elmore of Harvard. Writing in the latest Harvard Education Letter (unfortunately not fully available online), he decries the glut of education grad students currently who taught for two years and now want to change the world through policy and leadership. When Elmore sees these students, he wants to tell them “use your time in graduate school to become a better practitioner and get back into schools as quickly as possible. You will have a much more profound effect on the education sector working in schools than you will ever have as a policy actor.” Why do so many leave school though to become “actors” at another level. I would argue that the school work is just plain hard.

I am sure Mike could have been an assistant superintendent or policy expert but he chose to stay in his school and have a profound effect on students.

I do understand the desire sometimes to leave the trenches. When a student tears up my office in a momentary rage or after a day (or many) of spending inordinate amounts of time supervising the cafeteria, bus duty, hall duty (you get the picture) I sometimes think that I should be doing more than this.

When I am able to step back though, and think, and find some motivation from people like Mike, I realize that it is through that kind of work, the day to day “trench work”, that allows me to have the impact on students that I have and hope to increase in the future. It also allows me to have credibility with all of the people I work with without going through my credentials. That is a valuable thing to have and something I don’t want to give up for another twenty to twenty five years at least.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why no posts?...The dissertation moves slowly along. An interview with myself.

I just realized I have been away for a month but I definitely have been writing. I have been busily trying to finish Chapters 1,2,3 of my dissertation to get ready for my proposal defense, hopefully held by the end of March. And, I have most of it done. I am still trying to finish Chapter 3 but hopefully I have completed most of my work with Chapters 1 and 2.

What is my focus?
I am doing a descriptive study on elementary grade level classroom organization. In other words, how do the elementary schools in Virginia organize their classrooms in relationship to what a teacher teachers. Do teachers teach all subjects? Do teachers specialize? Do they teach somewhere in between?

Instead of trying to prove what model works over another, I am stepping back a bit and just trying to find out what exists out there in terms of models and then ask a few secondary questions of elementary principals in terms of why that particular model is used in the school.

Why this study?
There is remarkably little research on it, and I am interested in the rise of standards, especially math in elementary school, and whether that has forced more schools to have specialized teachers.

Why a dissertation?
This is a question that one asks himself quite a bit in the midst of the process. Why in god's name do this?
As I am deeper into the process now, I can now see that that was more of a procrastination question more than anything. It is enjoyable, it is very intellectually engaging, and it is a powerful feeling to be able to contribute a little piece of dust to the mountain of educational research.

I am working with two professors at UVA that are really forcing me to think and be as analytical as possible in this work. In the age of twitter, I find really spending some time and thinking completely through a body of research to develop a conceptual framework to be important to my growth as a professional.

Will this cut down on the blogging?
Yes, it will, but I think my three readers will understand. Three might be a little optimistic.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship in an Elementary School in India

I read Thomas Friedman's motivating column today and then found that one of my colleagues, Darah Bonham, was blogging about entrepreneurship in schools and calling on readers to inspire entrepreneurship in schools.

It got me thinking about our work with expeditionary learning. Implementation of expeditionary learning takes a long time, five to seven years is what most experts say. We are in year one. Yet, we are slowly but surely starting to find that one of the things that expeditionary learning will help us design is units of study that help students make real world connections. The work and slow because it is uphill. Not necessarily with the staff but any work to make things more authentic in a public school is an uphill slog (see NCLB). I have found that continual inspiration for me and others is crucial to help us keep that momentum uphill.

Then I found this wonderful video on TED.

One could argue after viewing that the Riverside School is an expeditionary learning school without calling themselves that. They have a simple motto: I Can and as a result they have created a group of young social entrepreneurs in their school and country. We always find reasons to not do things, bad budgets, stubborn people, but we need to focus more on the spirit of "I can".

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Loving the Honesty

I am currently reading Kim Marshall's new book, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration, and Close the Achievement Gap. I love it.

In the book he lays out some cornerstones to what he feels make an effective instructional leader.
  • Principals must conduct brief "mini-observations" followed up with conversations regularly with all staff
  • Principals must monitor and support teams of teachers developing strong unit plans
  • Principals must monitor and support the use of more frequent, formative assessments
  • Principals must be efficient and effective communicators of school vision and beliefs and must manage their time powerfully
Kim has been putting these thoughts together for a long time and you can get a look at his articles on his website. Some of my favorite articles center on what he calls HSPS (hyperactive superficial principal syndrome) and he details that further in the book. This book is a great gut check type book for a principal and I found myself very lacking in all areas after reading. Instead of overwhelming me though, it motivated and inspired me. Why?

Because he is so damn honest. In the opening chapter of the book, Kim recounts his fifteen years of experience at an elementary school in Boston. He tells the story focused on the many mistakes he made and the various battles he lost. He tells those stories to show how his current views became a reality.

In the principal business, we often don't like to talk about what is not working at our schools. We don't ever want any negative "press" about our schools so we often just talk about what is working. We rarely troubleshoot in my experience and rarely are we ever close to being as honest as Kim is as he recounts all of the different stories of his principalship. The honesty is authentic and motivating because I make dozens of mistakes a day and rarely do I share them or talk about them. From his mistakes, he has developed a very powerful vision of what makes an effective principal. That is how we learn, right?

Monday, January 18, 2010

My new (old) obsession: time

Education Sector's paper Teachers at Work is incredibly enlightening. It focuses on the ridiculously small amounts of time teachers have to plan and collaborate and focuses on a small group of charter schools (Generation Schools) that are creating new structures that give students more learning time and teachers more collaboration time while using the same resources.

According to the paper, American teachers have the least amount of planning time (time away from students) of any industrialized country in the world. We need to change this but I would guess that the reason this is not currently part of the Race to the Top policy focus is that we are not trusted to use extra time wisely.

The teaching needs to be more professional. If it is not a focus of the current Race to the Top, then we need to create more examples of schools that do creative things with teacher time and student time. Teaching is an incredibly hard grind and with all of the things we are asking teachers to do i.e. close the achievement gap and teach 21st century skills, we need to give them more time.

If we can create more school examples that are successful like the very early pilot of Generation schools, then it might become a policy initiative that cannot be ignored (I have decided to be hopeful today).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Worried about Teacher Merit Pay

I am worried about all of this talk about merit pay. Kim Marshall's essay last month in edweek made some great points but I think one of the most interesting ones is that it will undermine team work in a school.

I have been in education for seventeen years and at least in the schools I have worked in during that time, team work has come a long way. It has been a long slog of change to get stubborn educators (definitely including me) to be more collaborative in our professional learning work. Could merit pay turn that back? The jury is obviously still out on that one but hopefully they take those things into consideration when developing these new policies.

The other thing that I worry about that Kim does not mention is just that it might be too damn hard for principals to enact. I share the supervision with my assistant principal of about seventy five people. The demands of the principalship are huge and now we will ask these already incredibly taxed people to spend countless more hours thoughtfully linking student test data to raises for teachers. I will need a lot of help with this one.

My other worry is that in the end, whatever version gets enacted, still has little to no effect on what happens in the classroom, but we have to spend even more time on it to justfify monetary raises.

What does have a strong effect on classroom learning (my belief at least): a positive professional culture in a school. Will merit pay help to develop that?

Insightful Quote from An Ethic of Excellence has me thinking

Every teacher at Mary Carr Greer received a copy of Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence this year. Ron taught for twenty five years in a small elementary school and now works for Expeditionary Learning as a school designer. The book is a very personal and passionate read on one teacher's authentic journey in creating work of meaning and value with kids. Here is the quote:

"Imagine if students and schools were judged instead on the quality of student work, thinking, and character. Imagine an expectation that an adult should be able to enter a school and expect that any child in that school older than seven or eight would be ready to greet him politely, give an articulate tour of a well-maintained courteous environment, and present his portfolio of academic accomplishments clearly and insightfully, and that the student's portfolio would contain original, high quality work and document appropriate skill levels. If schools assumed they were going to be assessed by the quality of student behavior and work evident in the hallways and classrooms, rather than on test scores, the enormous energy directed toward improving student work, understanding, and behavior. Instead of working to build clever test takers, schools would feel compelled to spend time in building thoughtful students and good citizens."

That quote comes very close to summing up what I want to happen at Mary Carr Greer. I find one of the arts of my current state of leadership is skillfully navigating my way around and inbetween federal, state, and local policy that has little to no impact on student learning but that I must comply to. I worry that with Race to the Top and the other Obama-Duncan initiatives, we will spend even more time focusing on test scores and tests, especially with the potential of merit pay.

How do you create a school where all the children have a full understanding behind all of the activities that they do and an understanding of their own achievement through thoughtful portolio development? A school where children feel a strong sense of belonging and trust? That the adults feel the same sense of belonging and trust.

It takes years, I am figuring that out now, but I do think it is possible. Especially if I am able to keep figuring my way through all the things that policy makers develop that they think will help kids.

Some New Thoughts for the New Year

Now that I have graded my school related resolutions from last year, I have been giving some thought to this year and I keep focusing on one thing- feedback.

Right before winter break, we offered the entire teaching staff at Greer to offer up their thoughts in the form of a narrative survey. The survey was of the old school variety: a sheet of paper with eight questions on it and I locked them in a faculty meeting until it was done. We used very specific questions to gauge people's feelings toward our new initiatives like Responsive Classroom, Expeditionary Learning, reading grouping, faculty committees, and then asked people to also write about how communication could be improved. We did not use any numerical rating systems, just qualitative feedback. It was a very powerful experience for me as a leader for a couple of reasons: the quality of the feedback was very high, people really took the survey seriously, and the feedback although quite varied gave us some very concrete and actionable next steps as leaders.

I compiled the feedback over winter break and we shared it with the entire staff. Every planning conversation we have had the past three weeks goes back to the survey. The survey feedback inspired me to try to communicate better and be better at developing and communicating a vision for our school.

It also has gotten me thinking about feedback. How do we create a more feedback rich environment at Greer? How do I improve in giving feedback to people that I work with?

In all honesty, I am woefully unskilled at giving feedback as a school administrator. My goal is to improve that this year. Part of my work toward that goal is to read two books, Drive by Daniel Pink and Rethinking Teacher Evaluation and Supervision by Kim Marshall. Both books get at real and authentic ways to help adults grow and learn in any setting. As I read these books and reflect more, I will try to find ways to make this goal more specific than the incredibly vague "give better feedback".

Another thought I have for this year, not really a goal or resolution, but instead more of a reflective thought is how much time and energy we spend in a school and even more so in a school system on things that have no or little effect on improving the quality of instruction and learning in individual classrooms and for individual students. As I reflect on this, I will try to point out these activities in as diplomatic a way possible, but also try to find ways to eliminate these systems, procedures, behaviors in myself and my own school.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Update on Last Year's New Year's Resolutions

I think on New Year's Day you are supposed to look forward, not backward, but who really knows or cares.  A year ago, I felt the need to post some professional goals for New Year's Resolutions .
I will describe them briefly here with a grade, self inflicted, about my progress in accomplishing these goals.  One note, I think goals are different than resolutions, but I have resolved to not worry about the little things this year.

1.  Finish the dissertation.  Grade- incomplete- but I have made significant progress for the first time in some years now.  I have solid drafts of Chapters 1 and 2 and aim to defend a proposal in February.

2.  Get the children's garden and hiking trail started at Greer- Grade C+- We have eight garden plots for twenty five classes, not enough, but have started growing things.  We have not done much with the trail.

3.  Sing more outside of music class-  Grade B.  We now have school wide morning meetings where we all sing something as a school.  It is very powerful.  In every classroom morning meeting, singing sometime occurs, and at our teacher retreat last summer, during the post work time we had a singing competition.  I hope that all digital copies of this contest have been lost or eliminated.

4.  This goal was kind of vague about using technology more in school and in my professional life.  Grade ?  because I am not even really sure I knew what I was writing about.

These were obviously not my only goals or even the most important ones.  If I can remember back to last year, I think I was trying to challenge myself in areas that were not typically areas of focus for myself.

I will try to post this year's goals in a couple of days.