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.

#blog4reform!

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!