How Administrators Can Support Teacher Leaders in Their Schools

Jeffery E. Frieden, an educator, and blogger I greatly admire put out this tweet in February:

Friedman quote

I have to admit the first time I read it I thought to myself, what on earth would cause an administrator to not support the efforts of a staff member to create meaningful change for students?? Since I began my administrative career in Elmhurst District 205 innovation has been at the forefront of what we do.  Our belief statement about curriculum and instruction literally says,

“Students learn through innovative, engaged teaching methodologies taught by highly qualified, dedicated and inspiring professionals.” -Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205

For me, supporting innovative ideas of educators is one of my absolute favorite parts of my job.  (Not to be completely lame, but my tagline on Twitter literally reads, “You had me at, “I’ve got this idea.”)  Doesn’t every administrator feel that way?

As the responses began to unfold I realized the naivete of that thought.  There were valid questions and points brought up from both teachers and administrators demonstrating varying perspectives on the topic.  It was a rich discussion that ultimately left me evaluating and reflecting on my own perspective and approach.

Common Fears, Beliefs & Questions

It was clear from the responses that everyone was on the same page as far as the focus should always be on helping students. However, there appeared to be a major dichotomy from many teachers and administrators as to how to why innovative ideas weren’t flourishing.

From the administrator perspective, many responses included a desire to have data to back up the idea, a well thought out plan of execution and a connection to the district or school goals.  Making sure that educators had support or research behind their ideas was a theme that popped up repeatedly.  When they said no to an idea it was because it wasn’t clearly thought out or didn’t have a connection to district outcomes.  

Teachers who responded wanted to feel heard by their administrators.  Many expressed that they felt like innovation was a defeated effort before they started because their administrator was not open to new ideas.  They wanted their ideas to be met with enthusiasm, support and thoughtful questions that helped them bring their idea to life.  They wanted a leader that not only says we support innovative ideas, but also supports the words with action.

The Plan

Reflecting on the comments made in this thread I realize that I have been lucky in my teacher/administrator relationships.  I had administrators who either left me to my own accord to do what I knew was best for kids or leaders who regularly gave me the green light on my ideas.  As a result, I felt trusted, empowered, and inspired in the places I worked.  

As a new administrator, I hope to continue this approach to supporting innovation, but also think that based on some of the tweets I read I might be missing some structural pieces.  By incorporating these pieces, my hope is that the innovation started by one becomes more widespread leading to more success in students.

1. The Why

Tell me why you want to implement the idea you are bringing.  Is it based on the interests of your students?  A problem you are seeing in your classroom that you’d like to solve?  Something related to our mission and vision? An article you read?  Where is the idea coming from?

2.  The Plan

This is more of an overall plan as opposed to a step by step.  How do you plan on bringing your idea to life?  Who will this idea impact in your class?  What’s an estimated timeline?  Tell me about your idea so I can share in your enthusiasm. ūüôā

3.  What You Need from Me

Is there anything I can do to support you?  Do you need extra materials?  Feedback on your idea?  A partner to implement it with?  Reassurance from me that it’s ok if it doesn’t go according to plan?

4.  How You’re Going to Evaluate it

How will you know if it’s a success?  This part is more about thinking about the outcomes and how we’ll know if the students have met them.  Sometimes it’s anecdotal notes with specific behaviors or mindsets to be observed, student reflections on the work or even a project of some sort.  I don’t mean that you have to give every student a formal assessment, unless that makes sense for the idea you’ve created.

5.  How You’re Going to Share it With Others

One of the problems that I’ve seen happen over and over is that we amazing things going on all over our building on a daily basis, but administrators or coaches are the only ones who get to witness it.  How are you going to share your brilliance with our staff?  It could be something as simple as sharing it on social media and tagging it with our school # or as involved as presenting about it at a staff meeting or Late Arrival.  

Final Thoughts

Innovation in schools is critical to the success of our students.  Our kids are constantly changing and we need to make sure that we are regularly reflecting and shifting instruction to ensure their needs are met and their strengths are grown.  This starts with administrators supporting staff in taking risks.  This is more than saying we are innovative, it’s taken action steps and following through by supporting them through the process.  

I was lucky enough to be able to speak to Jeff directly about this idea in his podcast, Dear Teacher Don’t Give Up! If you’d like to hear more regarding both of our thoughts on the topic of teacher leadership and innovation, please click here.  (As a side note, both his podcast and blog are chalked full of inspiration and great ideas to use in the classroom. If this topic doesn’t interest you, I’d highly recommend checking out others.)

Goals Groupies: Synergizing the Passions of Staff

Last year, I read this post by John Spencer about the importance of being in a “Mastermind Group” with other educators.¬† ¬†It’s basically a group of teachers that meet regularly to explore and share ideas and also give one another feedback.¬† Because the members get to know each other well they can push one another in ways that would not be possible with other groups.

This idea has always stuck with me as something that would be great to implement with staff.¬† So when we started exploring options for our monthly staff meetings as an instructional leadership team, I brought this up as a possibility for a way to structure our time.¬† After talking through a variety of options, including a focus on the 6C’s or differentiated choices aligned to our School Improvement Plan, we ultimately decided on having staff finding a group of people who had written similar personal goals for the year.

The purpose behind this was twofold:

  1.  It gave people time to delve more deeply into something they were already personally invested in.
  2. It made our goal writing process more meaningful because staff would have dedicated time to continually work on them.  This is in contrast to past practice, where many educators (myself included) would wait until it was time to have a follow-up conference on their goals later in the year.  

At our first meeting in September, we had staff members do a “speed date” activity where they moved around the room talking about their goals for the year with different people.¬† Their goal was to find others who had similar interests or their “Goals Groupies.”¬† When they found a “match,” they would write that person’s name down on an index card.¬† At the end of the meeting, they met up with the people on their card and came up with an official focus for their group.¬†¬†

Although I had met with staff members on their goals for the year prior to this meeting, it was fun to see how groupies ended up evolving and what they ultimately chose to focus on.  We had 5th-grade teachers working with first-grade and even kindergarten teachers.  There were groups of specials teachers mixed with grade-level teachers.  The goals chosen were just as diverse and included:  SEL, critical thinking, parent communication, inquiry-based and real-world projects, reading fluency and accuracy, and facilitated IEP and collaboration.  

This past Thursday was our second meeting.  Our Goals Groupies were given time to explore their work more fully setting specific outcomes for their impact on students, creating a plan of action and agreeing on what they would bring to share at the next meeting.  We gave them this template with guiding questions to help them to further think through their ideas.  As I walked around the room, I listened to rich conversations and genuine enthusiasm for the work they were doing.  It was a Thursday after school, but everyone was just as energized as if we were starting a fresh day.  

This process has only reinforced my belief that when we empower staff to take the lead, we embolden change that impacts students far greater than any mandated initiative ever will.  When staff is given dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues who have a common passion, we capitalize on our strengths as a school as well as build capacity in multiple grade levels. The goals the groups have chosen to work on have far surpassed my wildest dreams of what we could work on this year as a staff.   I am beyond excited to see the impact on students as the year unfolds.

 

A Culture of Inquiry Vs. A Culture of Learning

We were discussing data at an EC-12 meeting this week when one of my colleagues posed a question I had never really considered before:

Would you rather have a culture of learning or a culture of inquiry in your building?

He had recently gone to a training for a grant he was a part of and the trainer had focused part of the day on this question.  The discussion that evolved from this question ended up being the most meaningful part of the day.

This got me thinking about how I might answer that question and its implications for education.¬† I’d say traditionally most schools have focused on the former.¬†Mission statements of educational institutions across the country frequently include phrases like, “to create lifelong learners” or “develop a love of learning.”¬† Since we want learning to continue way past students’ school days this focus makes sense to me.

But what if we instead focused on building a culture of inquiry in both our staff and students?  What might that look like?  What would the benefits be?

In their new book, Inquiry Illuminated, Goodvis, Harvey & Buhrow spend their first chapter making a case for an inquiry-based culture in classrooms.  They postulate that students who are supported by teachers in inquiry:

  • Live a life full of wonder and curiosity
  • Explore ideas and topics and issues that are central to their interests and concerns, linking these to the wider world
  • Read and respond inquisitively with an inquisitive mind and a skeptical stance
  • Think creatively to express and share new learning

To me, this means that in an inquiry-based culture, learners (both staff and students) are encouraged to ponder & discover problems or issues, ask deep questions about their cause, and spend time researching and exploring a variety of possible solutions.

From an educator stance, an inquiry-based culture would mean that we would take the time to ponder the why first before jumping into solutions.¬† For example, my kindergarten team was recently meeting in a PLC discussing how many of their students have been struggling to formulate questions about basically anything in class.¬† Instead of jumping right to, “let’s give them questions stems and organizers to help them to better formulate questions,” they spent the first part of the meeting talking about the root causes of the issue.¬† A variety of ideas were offered, but what they realized was that students were lacking in curiosity, not the ability to produce questions themselves.

From this realization, they designed a variety of activities to be done at home and at school including a Wonder Wall, “See, Think, Wonder, Talk” activity with pictures, question cards and more.¬† After the meeting one of the teachers even sent out a link to this article from ASCD about cultivating curiosity in students to further spark ideas.

Professional learning opportunities for staff could also look different from a culture of inquiry stance.  Instead of starting with outcomes for the day, participants might be asked to first think about a problem of practice.  They would then be given time to talk about its root causes with peers and finally have time to develop solutions to be implemented in the school or classroom.  At the next professional learning opportunity, staff members could talk about the results of their work in teams and then either problem-solve another issue they were pondering or go more deeply into the first issue.

In education, many times we are quick to jump to solutions before thinking about what might actually be causing the issue in the first place. Sometimes this fixes the problem, but other times it makes us appear like we are a “squirrel-based” culture, jumping from one new best practice to another.¬† This results in frustration from many parties, and in many cases does not actually fix the issue.

I do not think that we should go full forward into developing a “Culture of Inquiry” over a “Culture of Learning,” but rather the two seem to be intertwined and necessary for success in our schools.¬† If educators and students are going to be able to come up with plausible viable solutions for the problems they find then they have to be skilled at learning.¬† ¬†Having a voracious desire for knowledge can only lead to curiosity and asking questions.

I am definitely interested in exploring this topic further.  I plan on creating a bulletin board in the staff lounge or by the copy machine with the questions,

“What does a culture of inquiry mean to you?”

“What does a culture of learning mean to you?”

“Which do you think is more important in our school? Why?”

Their answers will determine the next steps we take as a staff, but at a bare minimum, I hope to spark the curiosity that these questions evoked in me.

If you are interested in developing more inquiry in your classroom or school I highly recommend reading¬†Inquiry Illuminated by Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey & Brad Buhrow or¬†Comprehension & Collaboration¬†by Stephanie Harvey & Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.¬† They give a great framework as well as a multitude of examples and strategies that can be applied to any grade.¬† I have to give a huge shout out to my EL teacher, Kory Curcio for recommending the latter.

I would love to hear any other ideas or resources you have enjoyed related to this topic! Christina

 

 

Teaching Students to Respectfully Disagree

I observed a teacher this week who was doing a lesson on creating theories and finding evidence to support one’s thinking.¬† She used a text from our curriculum called,¬†The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery by Jane Yolen.¬†¬†It’s a great text for a variety of reasons, but one of the best things about the book is that it sparks such curiosity in students.¬† The cast and crew mysteriously disappear in the middle of the ocean in the 1800s and no one has ever figured out what happened to them

Besides the fact that this teacher artfully asked questions that got the students thinking deeply, what stood out to me the most was the way the students conversed with one another about their ideas and how, even when they disagreed, they did so in a way that respected the individual they were talking to.

The lesson began with the students sharing their ideas about what the characteristics of a good theory are. During this conversation, students eagerly raised their hands and shared things like, “it has to have evidence,” with others adding on, “the evidence has to be strong.”¬† After this, students were partnered up in two lines and did a sort of “speed dating” with their theories about what they thought actually happened.

It was during this time that I observed students saying things like,

“I respectfully disagree with you because…”

“I respect your opinion, but…”

“I can see why you think that, but have you thought about…”

“I thought the same thing….”

“Tell me more about…”

“Can you give me another example?”

“Can you tell me more so I can understand better?”

The purpose set by the teacher for this time was to get new ideas from their partners, evidence or theory.  No one got upset while they were talking.  In fact, students eagerly shared their ideas in authentic conversations.

When I asked the teacher for more information about how she developed this skill in her students, she said:

“I noticed a need for this because I was trying to have my students have deep and mature conversations, but for many this was new and they didn’t yet have the social tools to do this respectfully. Even as we get older disagreeing can be a difficult thing, so I tried to find visuals that the students could refer to when they were vocalizing their thoughts.¬† If they agreed, I wanted to give them language to further the conversation.”

Her plan is to continue to have her students practice this skill in literacy and then adapt it for math.  She thought this would be particularly useful for student discussions about the reasonableness of answers, which can be tricky for students of all ages.

¬†As I think about her lesson, I wonder if another element of success was the teacher’s use of the word, theory as opposed to argument.¬† Coming from the latin stem, argumentum, argument¬†is literally defined as, “an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one.”¬† When we are asked to build an argument and then find support for our idea, the natural tendency is to fight with the person we are speaking with if they disagree until they come to our side.

The connotation of the word theory is quite different, less combative and more collaborative.¬† The word theory usually refers to a hypothesis that a person is formulating and still seeking information in the process to support the thought.¬† When talking to another person about his or her theory, the partner wants to help, to question or to add to the other person’s thoughts because it is not absolute yet.

With the volatile world that we currently live in, it is imperative that we teach students to respectfully disagree.¬† Being able to successfully communicate one’s ideas, as well as perceiving opposing thoughts as an opportunity to learn instead of a personal attack are key skills to success in making our world better.¬†¬†

 

 

 

Putting a Stop to the Right Way of Education

I recently saw this tweet by Dr. Brad Johnson: 

teaching different ways

I liked this post for several reasons, but mostly because it goes against what is frequently heard in education, that there is only one right way to teach children.¬† I’m guessing this has stemmed from the No Child Left Behind era that we are all still suffering PTSD from, but it needs to stop.¬†¬†

I have spent the past seven years working in classrooms, observing teachers or partnering with them on lessons.¬† Not once have I seen highly effective teaching demonstrated in the exact same manner.¬† I cannot tell you how many teachers I have spoken with, in a variety of capacities, who have asked me, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this okay?”¬†¬†When we tell people there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” we are setting up our educators for self-doubt as opposed to empowering them to make instructional decisions based on the needs of their students.¬†¬†

We set up a similar dynamic when we give students limited ways or one way of demonstrating their learning.  This cartoon is a great illustration of this idea:

animal test.jpg

Making kids read a book and fill out the same template after they read, complete a problem set after a math lesson, or write a five-paragraph essay on the same topic are all examples of ways we tell students that there is a right way and wrong way of demonstrating learning.  We give students assignments like this because it is an easy way for us to see if students have reached proficiency.  However, the unintended consequences of this approach might be:

  1. ¬†We create a classroom dynamic where students constantly ask us, “Am I done?”¬† “Did I do this right?” (I don’t know about you, but these type of questions personally drive me crazy.)
  2. ¬†We aren’t really getting an accurate gauge of student understanding.¬† When given choice in demonstrating their learning, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach,¬† many students will actually show they can go way beyond the target.¬† On the flip side of this, students who struggle with the way we are asking them to demonstrate learning (think elephant, fish, seal above), may show us they don’t know how to do something that they actually do.

Please know I am not advocating for zero expectations or standards in the classroom.  I do believe strongly that there are strategies and structures we can use that are more effective than others depending on the learners in front of you.  I also know that students are not going to be able to set goals and reflect on their progress if there is never an expectation to be reached even with choice provided.    

We need to start thinking more of teaching and learning as a limitless continuum as opposed to an endpoint to be reached.  When we provide professional learning experiences we should have educators experience and explore a variety of high leverage instructional practices and then trust them to make the right choices for their learners.  We need to have high expectations, but broaden our definition of what this means and recognize this might look different depending on students and the target for learning in the classroom.  

At our Late Arrival on Wednesday we focused on microshifts in practice in math workshop.  We gave teachers a continuum with three options of what it might look like in the classroom with descriptors. (Thank you to our amazing coach Pia for creating it!)  Instead of saying, your goal is to get to the last option, empowering students, we asked teachers to reflect on times when they had been in each of the options.  They thought about when it made sense to use each of these types of models and then set a goal for one new strategy they would implement over the next few weeks. 

I have already seen the impact of this approach in the classrooms I have visited.¬† I’ve seen examples from the continuum as well as ideas that have far surpassed it.¬† No one has asked me for permission or questioned whether they are doing it right.¬† Each classroom has been uniquely amazing in its own way and I look forward to keeping it that way.¬†

Thanks for reading.  Christina

 

Slowing Down

“Why are you so mad at that driver mama?” asked my daughter Alexandra on the way home from the grocery store last Saturday.¬† I wanted to say in my most indignant voice, “Because he is driving slower than molasses and deserves to be yelled at,” but something about the way she asked the question snapped me out of my crazy road rage.¬† Instead, I took a breath, paused, and wondered…

What was I so mad at?

It was by all accounts a gorgeous day.¬† One of those beautiful days where you open the windows, breathe deep and smile at the luck you’re having on a September weekend in Chicago.

Except I wasn’t.¬† Not one bit.¬† The night before I had painstakingly mapped out every waking moment that day from my 5:30 a.m. workout all the way to Alexandra’s birthday party that night.¬† I went to sleep that night thinking I was a genius of time management and that I was going to avoid any stress because I was so prepared.¬†¬†What I ended up doing was spending the day jumping from one activity without a moment for pause.¬† The anxiety I was trying so hard to avoid had escalated to monstrous proportions.¬† ¬†

What I realize now is that in my brilliant timetable, I had neglected to schedule a time for a pause in my day.  A time to just do whatever I wanted to do.  A moment of quiet or catching one of my favorite shows or reading a book or even just talking to a friend.  Because of this, I was walking through the day feeling on edge.

I remember feeling this way many times throughout the years when I was a teacher. As the list of important objectives grew, the time in the school day remained the same. The only way to get everything done was to over-schedule every subject down to the minute leaving no time for pause, a teachable moment or connection to something not already planned in the day. Each day blended with the next, and although I had accomplished everything on my list I grew more and more overwhelmed.

Kids feel the anxiety as much as we do. Even when they are offered choice and voice, the purpose is still determined by the teacher. They spend 6-7 hours of their day doing essentially what someone else is asking them to do. When we do give them a moment away from the academic schedule, it’s usually a “brain break”¬†where we dictate exactly what they will be doing to “relax.”¬† What message does that send to them?

¬†Google, “the effect of breaks on the brain” or “taking time for ourselves” and you’ll find a plethora of research and articles that support the idea that taking periodic breaks are actually better for learning.¬† In a recent article from Edutopia, the authors posit that taking periodic breaks (including brain breaks) actually decreases stress and increases productivity.¬† One of the most interesting studies they reference showed that when the brain is at rest it is actually highly active with different areas lighting up.¬† “Breaks keep our brains healthy and play a key role in cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension and¬†divergent thinking.”¬†¬†

If you’re still not convinced that learners need more downtime in school, think about the increase in mental health issues we have seen over the past few decades.¬† According to the CDC, “1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2‚Äď8 years (17.4%) have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Behavior disorders are greatest in students ages 6-11 while rates of depression and anxiety rise as children age, peaking at ages 12-17.¬†¬†

I have to believe that some of this is a result of the fast-paced world the students are a part of.¬† At school, with the exception of lunch and recess, the content and schedule of their day are chosen for them.¬† Many students continue this pace when they leave school moving from one activity to another.¬† Even though most of these after school activities are chosen and preferred by the student, it still doesn’t leave time to just be present and reap the benefits of having time to pause.¬†¬†

If we want learners to be cognitively flexible and creative thinkers then we have to start giving everyone more breaks in their day.¬† I’m not saying we need more brain breaks, or even more recess.¬† ¬†Just some time broken up throughout the day when everyone in the room gets a moment to choose something that he or she wants to do that is not tied to a standard or a demand of another human being.¬† The research seems to show that if we can do this, we’ll not only be better learners but happier humans overall.¬† ¬†

So I’m starting with me.¬† Next week I’m blocking out time in my day for myself.¬† I’m talking to my teachers about doing this for not only the students, but themselves as well.¬† We all work insanely hard inside and outside of school.¬† Let’s give ourselves some grace and slow down the pace of the day.¬† I don’t know where the quote below came from, but I’m going to end with it as a kind reminder.

Who’s Doing the Thinking?

It’s no secret.  Education is a “mile-wide, inch-deep” endeavor with new ideas about what’s best cropping up in district initiatives all over the nation.  Some people attribute this to caring deeply about students and wanting what’s best for kids.  Others say the world is changing quickly and it is our responsibility to keep up.  Whatever the reason it seems like anywhere between two and ten new things are being added into initiative soup each year.  

With so many options to choose from, I’ve found myself frequently wondering how do we know what to focus on?  

A visit to my school this week from education author and presenter, Eric Sheninger, helped to shine light on the answer to this question. Initially, we were told his purpose was to visit our schools to do a “tech audit” of how the staff is integrating technology in the classrooms.  He did come into our classrooms and give us feedback on this,  but shared that his real purpose was to look at the level of thinking that was occurring in students, technology or not.  Essentially, his driving question was, 

“Who’s doing the thinking?”

I love how simple this question is, and yet how impactful it can be on any lesson. It transcends ideology as well as level and gets to the heart of what we want students to do in a lesson, become independent.  If we are the ones constantly doing the thinking for students then how will this ever occur?  

With adults, it’s the same concept.  As an administrator or coach, if I’m the one who’s doing all of the talking during a coaching session or professional learning experience, how am I really empowering my staff to continue the work when I’m not there?  

I challenge you this week as you are planning to ask yourself, who is really doing most of the thinking in this work?  If it’s more you than them, I encourage you to shift what you are doing, or just don’t do the activity at all.

Some small shifts you can make to increase the thinking in your learners:

  • Make sure that students know what the success criteria of the lesson and the work they are doing.  Have them evaluate themselves at the beginning of the lesson as well as at the end.  If you’re feeling really awesome develop the success criteria with the students.  This lessens the number of, “Did I do this right? Am I done?” questions.
  • Incorporate more peer discussion where students have to defend their thinking in response to a question, prompt, or idea.  Have students share their ideas and invite the class to evaluate the validity of the ideas.
  • Talk less.  Pause more.  Thinking takes time.  I know it can be insanely awkward to wait, but when we rescue students at the first sign of struggle we are giving them the message that they are not capable and need someone to rescue them.  Pre-plan questions that you might ask to students who you know might struggle with the work so that they get there on their own.  
  •  Plan for activities that have multiple paths of success.  It is rare that I have ever seen a worksheet or graphic organizer do this.  I know that many curriculum come with these handy options and understand why they are frequently used, but if we are really examining the level of thinking it’s usually just filling in blanks and boxes to win the school game instead of deepening or extending learning.  
  • Make kids the creators.  Some of the best learning I have seen is when a teacher asks students to design something on their own based on their understanding of the learning target.  

By focusing more on increasing the level of thinking in our learners, and less on perfecting the latest initiative, we create a system for success that will transcend any subject, learning style or mandate.  As Todd Whitaker says, it’s people, not programs that make the difference in education.

Putting an End to the Meaningless Agenda

We’ve all been there.

Sitting at a meeting or a grad school class where the agenda is ten miles long, broken up into either short little choppy increments or hour-long blocks without a break in sight.

Half of the items on the list seem to come from out of nowhere or could easily have been addressed in an email.

The absolute worst?  When the facilitators in no way honor the experience and talents the people at the meeting bring to the table, making everyone learn about the same things as if they have no understanding whatsoever.

When I was a teacher I loathed these experiences.  It felt like meetings were “being done to me” as opposed to inviting me to bring my talents and grow my strengths.

Many of our students feel the same way.  No matter how great of a student they are, they feel like they are showing up to the “school show,” expected to follow the rules and expectations set forth for them with little input as to how the day will proceed.

Can you imagine spending every day this way? I can’t.

We can and should do better.

When I became an administrator I vowed I would never bring this type of experience to my staff.  Am I perfect at it yet?  Definitely not, but here are a few things I try to do so that I’m not bringing a case of the meeting dreads to my staff:

  1. Ask for feedback.  Although I haven’t yet been able to start from scratch with my school leadership team in creating an agenda due to time constraints (we’re almost ahead of this), I do bring the agenda to the team and ask for feedback prior to our institute days or Wednesday late arrivals.
  2. Build on the expertise of the team.  What are they good at?  What are they passionate about?  What do they see as the greatest need that would make the meeting most valuable to all?  Stop being the only one who presents and let teacher leaders lead.  They’re the ones who know the kids the best.  We need to trust them!
  3. Tie everything back into the vision that was created as a staff.  Ours this year is #unlimitedgrowthandconnection.  We make sure that every agenda item is connected to this and explicitly stated.
  4. Include breaks and don’t make people turn off their technology.  We’re all adults.  If we’ve made the topics of the meeting meaningful then people won’t want to distract themselves with other things.  We should trust people to use their resources when they need/want to.
  5. Include something fun.  Meetings are an opportunity to build culture and camaraderie.  We added in a “Walk-Up Song” activity at the beginning of each staff meeting where we asked staff members to send us the song they would have played when they walk into the classroom like they do in Major League Baseball.  The rest of the staff has to guess whose song it is.  We even have prizes.  From the response at the last meeting, we might add in karaoke.  What does your staff enjoy?  Thankfully mine loves music and food, two of my favorite things so I also try to bring some sort of tasty treat.

If you’re a teacher, what might this look like in your classroom?  How often do you ask for feedback or build the day around goals students have set for themselves? How can you make each learning target meaningful to the students so they see a connected purpose in the work they are doing?  What would the day look like if more choice and voice were incorporated?

I love this question that George Couros poses to educators,

“Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”

For me, this question has transitioned to, “Would you want to be a teacher in your staff meeting?” I hope as the year progresses the answer to this question becomes an emphatic yes!  Let’s stop “doing school to people” and start asking for meaning from our people.

Wildly Important Goals: Calm in the Chaos

This past Thursday I attended a training on evaluating administrators.¬† As much as I enjoyed talking with my peers and listening to the presenter, the part that was most meaningful was learning about a concept called, “Wildly Important Goals” from the book,¬†The Four Disciplines of Execution by Covey, McChesney, & Huling.

The beginning of the year is hectic for educators, and it can make you feel like although you are working insanely hard and barely sitting every day, your ToDo List never seems to get any smaller.¬† When I was a teacher I had experience and routines in place that helped to counteract this, but as a new administrator I’m still figuring things out.¬† I’ve been questioning my ability to execute, much less ever be good at all of the tasks required of a principal.

So when the presenter played this video about the first discipline of the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm.  It was like someone had been reading my mind and had given me that plan of execution I had been experimenting with, but never really successfully accomplishing.

Like the title says, there are four disciplines that are key to exceptional leadership.  Discipline 1 is the Discipline of Focus.  Mastering it will make the whirlwind of tasks (expected or unexpected) that can be all-consuming to a leader (or teacher), become not only more manageable, but resulting in the achievement of our loftiest goals.   The authors argue that amazing results can only happen if we are clear on what matters most.

So how do we do this?

Start with creating a Wildly Important Goal (WIG).¬† Ask yourself, “If everything else remained, what one achievement would make everything else seem secondary?” It is way harder than you might think to come up with this goal, but once you do, you focus all of your effort on the tasks related to accomplishing it.¬† The other tasks you have to complete you are given permission to put forth minimal effort to complete.

I love the analogy given in the video of the jobs of an air traffic controller. It may seem like EVERYTHING is critical in this job, but really the laser focus must be on the plane that is trying to land so that it gets on the ground safely.  A much smaller amount of effort is spent on making sure the other planes do not crash.  As a lifelong perfectionist, this one analogy was the most calming and reassuring.

In creating my WIG, I thought about the goal we set as a staff on the first institute day this year of Unlimited Growth & Connection.  What was my role in this endeavor?  Where do I want to focus all of my efforts so that this goal is achieved by all stakeholders?  When I started breaking these two things down, I realized that in order for students & staff to have unlimited growth they need to know their strengths.  The only way this could happen was by me developing strong relationships with everyone involved in our school.

My Wildly Important Goal for this year is making sure that every learner (adult and child) in my school community ends the year knowing at least one strength they are incredibly talented at.  This is not going to be an effort that I can do alone.  It will definitely be a team effort including all staff members as well as our parent community.

To ensure that my WIG becomes a reality, I have the following action steps planned for the rest of the first trimester:

  1.  Unless I have a meeting, be outside talking with students both before and after school.  Be present at recess/lunch for the same reason.
  2. Block out time daily in my calendar to be in classrooms.¬† When I’m in classrooms give explicit feedback to students about what they are doing well.¬† When I leave, send a positive email to staff or tweet out their awesomeness.
  3. Create a lunch schedule where every student in the school is invited at some point throughout the year to eat lunch with the principal.
  4. Continue the “Positive Phone Calls Home” on Fridays where I call families to share with them the good news that their teacher nominated them to receive a phone call home based on something special they have done.
  5. Provide time for our staff during institute days and staff meetings to track how much they know about students both personally and academically and collaborate with their peers with action steps.  At our Late Arrival on Wednesday, teachers had time to fill out this template (or this one) and collaborate with peers to get the process started.
  6. Provide professional learning opportunities focused on giving feedback in both teacher to student and student to student.
  7. Before and after school walk around the building and check in with staff members to find out their successes, ideas and challenges that they may want assistance with.
  8. Ask for feedback from staff, students, and the community.  How well do they think I know them or their child?  How do they know?  What are suggestions for improvement?

The next three steps in the process involve tracking lead behaviors (action steps), making progress visible and having regular accountability talks.¬† For me, the lead behaviors I plan on tracking are how much I know about each staff member and how often have I given them positive feedback.¬† I also plan on keeping track of everything I know about students.¬† I have a dream of a giant wall in my office with a picture of each student and a place to record things I know, but I’m guessing a binder with a class list including pictures is more realistic.¬† At the end of each day, I’ll flip through the pages and jot a few notes.¬† For staff, I’m going to have a stapled packet of our staff list with one page for each week of school.¬† Every time I visit a classroom I’ll put a checkmark next to the staff members’ name followed by an email with positive feedback.¬† I have used this practice regularly in the past and it is a great tool to track how much I know about their strengths.

I recognize that this sounds like I have just given myself a TON of extra work to do, but what it has really done is prioritized what is important each day.¬† It’s not that I won’t do the other logistical things that are required to make the building work well or if a crisis arises I won’t help out, but I’m not going to expend the majority of my energy on them.

Prior to this training I used a methodology I learned from James Clear (check out his website here -it is awesome) where you prioritize three main tasks of the day and start each day putting forth all of your energy towards them.  I liked this approach because it helped me feel a sense of accomplishment each day.  However, many times I struggled with prioritizing what were the 3 most important things.

Layering in this new approach is going to elevate this process and give me the confidence I need to execute my Wildly Important Goal.¬† I look forward to sharing with you the progress along the way of every learner at Jefferson knowing his or her strength.¬† Thanks in advance for being my regular accountability check-in. ūüôā

Unlimited Growth & Connection: Creating a Common Vision

“It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.” – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Now maybe I’m being a bit dramatic using the opening line of a book about the dichotomy of people’s lives during the French revolution to describe my inner turmoil as I drove to work on the opening institute day of the year, but I honestly don’t think I could describe it any better.  Never in my life have I been so insanely excited about something while also so completely terrified at the same time.

As a former instructional coach, I know that trust starts day one. It’s not one thing you do, but a collection over time that builds up.  Brene Brown tells a story in Daring Greatly of a time that her daughter lost trust in one of her friends who hurt her deeply.  Her daughter’s description of how trust works has become one of my favorites.  (I actually used it on the opening slide of my keynote that day.) 

‚ÄúTrust is like a marble jar. You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends who over time you‚Äôve filled up their marble jar. They‚Äôve done thing after thing after thing where you know you can trust this person.‚ÄĚ 

I had started building a few marbles of trust with my staff over the summer, meeting in coffee shops individually or in groups to get to know them better, but this was the first time I would be addressing them as a whole, sharing my hopes, my fears, my dreams and promises to them as a leader.  The importance of vulnerability is another concept I learned from Brene.  This felt like vulnerability on extra strength steroids. On this day not only was I was going to be incredibly vulnerable, but in one of our activities, I was asking my staff to also be vulnerable as well.  It was a perfect storm for complete success or epic failure.  

I learned from Katie Martin visiting our school last year the power that sharing your why can have in creating connection as well as a direction for the vision of the school.  With this in mind, my instructional leadership team (myself, assistant principal & coach) planned out an activity where staff members were asked to bring two objects, one representing their personal why and one their professional why of everything they do.  They then were asked to get into groups of four with people they don’t normally interact with and share the stories behind them.  Finally, they had to create a visual that represented the common theme among them.  They had about an hour to do this and then were instructed to come back to our Multi-Purpose Room to share what they had created.

Our greatest hope was that we would find a common thread among them that would focus everything we did for the year.  Our greatest fear was that nothing would be connected and we would be coming up with an artificial idea that some people would get on board with, but others would find greater disconnection.  

My assistant principal and I spent the hour walking around classrooms listening in to the powerful conversations that groups were having with one another.  Many shared stories of people, adults and children, who had had a great impact on them.  The positive energy was flowing as smiles and memories lit up the faces of everyone involved.  It appeared that although each story was unique, there were definitely common themes emerging.

At around 10:00 the moment of truth arrived and we asked the groups to return to our MPR to share their common threads.  As each group stood and shared their creation, it was truly amazing to hear the ideas that each group shared and the inspired ways they chose to represent them.  You can see a picture of what they made below, but one group made a chain with important words connected together.  Another group drew a puzzle with different pieces connected.  Another team talked used Buzz Lightyear in their image to represent that students need to know that they have infinite possibility.  A couple groups used nature to demonstrate how as educators we want students to grow to their full potential.

It was completely inspiring to see how much we had in common.  I deeply appreciate the vulnerability it took to have these conversations in sharing their passions and beliefs.  It was because of this that our vision for the year emerged easily:  Unlimited Growth and Connection, applying to both our staff and students.  

We spent the next hour sharing ideas for how we could better connect with students at the beginning of the year and throughout.  Splitting up the ideas into the four categories of:  Classroom Community, Community of Learners, Sense of Belonging and Student Strengths teams, we created a chart that could be referred back to throughout the year.  Each staff member selected one to two ideas of something new to try this year and created a plan of action.  

The week and a half following our opening day has been nothing short of amazing.  As I have been in classrooms and around the building I have seen our focus unfolding and evolving as each person has been connecting with our students in inspired and inventive ways.  Yesterday one of our staff members shared an idea with me that she and another staff member have for our entire staff for Unlimited Growth and Connection that totally blew my mind.  They are hashing out the plan for it this weekend and I sincerely cannot wait to talk to them about it on Monday.  

We have decided to use #unlimitedgrowthandconnection in our social media posts for the year to share our journey with others.  

Poehler

This is another quote that I shared on my first day to describe the best team I have ever been a part of.  It was truly the best time in my teaching career and I thought it would be impossible to duplicate.  As I have begun to build relationships, I am seeing this same quality emerge in my Jefferson staff, students, and community.  That sheer and utter terror I had on the first day has turned to delight, pure joy and excitement for the great work we will do together.  

As always, thanks for reading!  Christina