Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Key Questions to ensure Teacher Effectiveness

With all the discussion, frustration, stress, tension and anxiety circulating around teacher evaluation, sometimes it becomes helpful to remember that the key output for all of this angst is to have the best teachers working with students and supporting them effectively to achieve. Unfortunately, we have grown up as an educational society with diminished benchmarks for improvement of teacher effectiveness, and now as the calls for heightened awareness and more effective teacher evaluations are in front of us, we are shaken to the core of our foundation of educational practice.

In a wonderful book by Pamela Salazar, High Impact Leadership for High Impact Schools, five guiding questions are offered as key reminders of this work as schools, once again, take up the ever frustrating mantle of evaluating teachers.
  1. Do supervision practices support teacher growth and development? Or, are they "hit and run" paper trails that do little to improve method, pedagogy, or instruction?
  2. Are teachers challenged to examine assumptions about their work and rethink how it can be performed? Have teachers bought into peer evaluation or collegial observations to determine effectiveness?
  3. Do teachers use instruction that engages and motivates students?
  4. Have we created a climate of experimentation- an environment where teachers are willing to take risks, to try new things?
  5. Do we have supports in place for new and struggling teachers? Something other than a Teacher Improvement Plan?
Inspiring and dynamic school leaders need to find ways to transform the teacher evaluation process into an important professional development opportunity if for nothing more than to strengthen the profession. Instead of viewing the calls for higher benchmarks as a threat to leadership, view them as a call for raising the bar for student achievement.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Schools and Social Media

I will never forget sitting in the kitchen of my boyhood home, at the dinner table, with my father holding a "pink slip" that was sent from my math teacher when I was in 7th grade, stating that I was having difficulty passing math. My Dad was troubled by that message, but was compelled to ensure that I would be passing math one way or the other, and he made sure that as a parent, he would follow through appropriately. "Pink slips" were a warning sent out to families every ten weeks. Today we refer to them as interim progress reports.

No matter what they are called, communication is the key concept here. Schools need to excel at communication or be ridiculed as failing to meet the needs of the students and the community.

Imagine if schools used social media tools to converse with parents on things, such as student achievement, class news, and other info-bytes, how wonderful the educational perspective might be for parents, students and community members.

Here are some social media thoughts:

1)     Social media demands what educators do not want to do.

  • Social media demands pure engagement between school leaders and parents/students. Leaders need to compel teachers through their example in using it regularly and consistently. It brings the school and the parents closer together increasing interaction and support.
2)     Social media creates hype, buzz, and spreads the word about school.
  • A district approach to social media PR and promoting info-bytes to the community places the school in a more favorable light to everyone. Announcing everything from school closings, lunch menus, sports activities, concerts, and budget concerns, keeps the school in front of the community.
3)     Social media is instant feedback on a global scale.
  • Imagine getting survey feedback and opinions back from parents, students, and community members instantly or withing a matter of minutes as issues and PR concerns crop up for a school. Policy and practice merge and community interest is there when you need it.
The reality of social media is that it will increase parental and community opinion. But, is that such a bad thing in the long run? As leaders we cannot be fearful of opinion in the public arena. Yes, it is uncomfortable, but it is what we live for in doing our jobs at the public's request.

Social media is a wonderful phenomena for schools to use in moving ahead with 21st Century Learning. Use it, and prosper.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Look of 21st Century Learning

Blythwood, SC has stepped into the 21st Century by creating a new high school, complete with optimal learning opportunites designed to prepare students for the future. From a brief description of the new school one can sense the kind of school that is awaiting kids this year. "The 70-inch televisions in every classroom are just the beginning. Two visual arts classrooms are loaded with pottery wheels and kilns. Sixteen science labs have hydraulic simulators and wind tunnels. The band room has computer-assisted practice rooms. The TV studio rivals some TV stations. While Westwood's features look good in brochures and on TV, teachers say their real purpose is opportunity. (bold by the blogger) "The look on it is very traditional, but when you come inside, I hope people see that it's 21st century," said Principal Ralph Schmidt. "It's about engaging students and making them self-directed learners." Schmidt doesn't expect his students to master aerodynamics or firefighting -- that's offered as a class too -- he wants them to get a taste of it."
What a tremendous tribute to this community's desire to push ahead and prepare students for 21st Century learning. Recognize the key thought though, as expressed by teachers..." the real purpose is opportunity." It isn't about the technology, or the design of new classrooms. It's about "opportunity" for students and teachers in creating a new learning environment, trying something different, and getting kids ready for the future. This is the true aim of 21st Century learning, not the toys, but the way we play or learn. 
Kudos to this school community for stepping into the dynamic learning of the future.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Parable of the Geese

In the book , Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, author Phillip Simmons weaves an interpretive, heartfelt rendering of the simple idea that “life is a mystery” to be respected, feared, cherished and enjoyed, not a problem that needs to be solved. This concept has been a revelation to one, such as myself, that has spent years attempting to be in control, and stressed out because of it.
It is with this thought that I write this blog for the start of a new school year, about organizational leadership and the effects this concept of natural, spontaneous release of organizational leadership has on people of the 21st Century, at this time, and this place. We are in a crisis and a sincere void of of spontaneous, responsible leadership in our society. Just this week, a Republican Senatorial candidate from Missouri makes an ignorant, and pretentious remark about women that should shake, rattle, and roll all Americans. Regardless of who the appointed leaders are, we have yet to find true, charismatic leadership that can affect the direction of a society that is in distress, and direly in need of direction to solve the many problems that stress humanity.
Maybe the job is too great to expect just one person to complete the requirements of employment. Maybe we struggle because it would be impossible to find anyone with the qualifications to manage such an impossible task. Or, is it?
Living in Florida, I enjoy watching the flight patterns of peloquins over the ocean. As they fly in a straight line or in a quasi V-formation I am reminded of this concept of natural leadership in the Parable of Geese. As some people nervously await the start of another school year, and the country is anxious about another election, maybe we need to be reminded of this natural phenomena, once more.

Fact: As each goose flaps its wings it creates an "uplift" for the birds that follow. By flying in a V-formation, the whole flock adds 72% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of another.

Fact: When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.

Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give out help to others.

Fact: When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.

Lesson: It pays to take turns going the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other's skills, capabilities, and unique arrangements of gifts, talents, and resources.

Fact: The geese flying formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Lesson: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one's heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.

Fact: When a goose gets sick, wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.

Lesson: If we had as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

Fact: Geese fly South for the winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

Lesson: It is a reminder to take a break from the cold of winter and take a vacation to some place warm & sunny to rejuvenate ourselves.

Fact: The larger flocks of geese usually inhabit areas where geese eating for humans is more popular or in demand, and where there are smaller flocks of geese flying, there is usually smaller demand for geese, to be used for human food. * This fact according to the Oklahoma State University Board of Regents study on geese.

Lesson: Larger flocks of humans together may not always be as effective as smaller flocks who are able to maneuver much more quickly in life and business without being eaten up by the to speak. ;-) (yes, this was a stretch, but relevant, no? :)

Lesson #2: The smart geese know to not fly with the big herds, and create their own niche flying circle or game. 

The moral of all this is to remind people that leadership comes from within all of us. At times, it is necessary to rise to the top and be a leader for what matters most. So, may the flights of winged creatures inspire all of us to start a new school year with the strength and leadership that naturally exists in our community of staff members.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Opening a New School Year

Another school year is about to begin in many parts of the world. "Back to School" sale signs have been out and about since late June or early July, encouraging parents to buy their school supplies, while kids and teachers have been psyching themselves out worrying about another school year.

The opening of any school year is a time of great anxiety, and apprehension. What could certainly be a great opportunity for a school administrator can be seen in how the right tone for starting the school year is necessary. Here are some simple suggestions for adventurous school leaders.

1) Begin the school year with a "Bang!"
Have an exceptional opening day meeting with faculty, and energize the creative juices of the teachers and staff ready to start the school year.

2) Provide a luncheon for everyone on day 1. Even if you have to pay for it yourself. Nothing builds team effort life a meal.

3) Have a small gift for each employee, such as a coffee mug, a pen, a pin; something to remind them of why they are an important part of the team.

4) Greet each and every employee at the opening day, and make sure you shake a hand, give a hug, and look them in the eyes telling them how special they really are to the school.

5) Lastly, make all of your faculty meetings special, fun, and team oriented.

Schools will survive in the future beyond the testing nonsense, and what will be remembered will be the sense of camaraderie, team work, and sense of family that will be important features of a learning community.

Have a great school year!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Helicopter Parents

Being an educator that has worked in suburban public schools for my entire 38 years, it is interesting to have dealt with overbearing, intensive parents. Ending my career as a school superintendent showed me the lengths and stress these type of parents bring to covering for their children and hoping for the best.

As I am presently retired, I cannot help seeing these "helicopter parents" still hovering in my daydreams, and wondering how their children are turning out after all of the grief they gave to so many well-intentioned, and effective teachers.

On Sunday, August 5, 2012, an interesting article in the NYTimes discussed this very phenomenon.
Levine, M. (August 5, 2012). Raising Successful Children. New York Times,

"The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality. If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality. Ditto nightly “reviews” of homework, repetitive phone calls to “just check if you’re O.K.” and “editing” (read: writing) your child’s college application essay.

Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself (if he’s young) or angry at you (if he’s a teenager)."

I will never forget a young girl that fit the description of an over-achieving student that rose to be ranked valedictorian of her class drop out 3 days before graduation. Her reason, to get back at her parents for pushing her so hard.

As the author of the article states: "A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy."

Here's hoping that parents will accept their children for who they are.