Go team!


The title of our staff’s latest shared Google presentation was, “Go Team Brecknock!” I’m not sure what compelled me to name it that, but I think it’s because the first hour of our morning (before we provided teachers with sweet freedom to collaborate with their grade level peers for the remainder of the day), our discussions focused on the “state of our school,” an overall look at some data trends, where we are, where we need to go, and how we’re going to get there. We are a team, working toward the collective goal of improving learning experiences for all children.

No single person can move a school, therefore team dynamics become critical. We modeled our own professional learning community work after DuFour’s model. One of the “big ideas” of Dufour’s PLC is A Culture of Collaboration:

Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture…. For teachers to participate in such a powerful process, the school must ensure that everyone belongs to a team that focuses on student learning. Each team must have time to meet during the workday and throughout the school year. Teams must focus their efforts on crucial questions related to learning and generate products that reflect that focus,   such as lists of essential outcomes, different kind of assessment, analyses of student achievement, and strategies for improving results. Teams must develop norms or protocols to clarify expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and relationships among team members. Teams must adopt student achievement goals linked with school and district goals. –What is a professional learning community? (DuFour, 2004)

What makes a strong team? What makes a dysfunctional team? I’ve seen both in action, and I’ve been part of both. As administrators we need to recognize the characteristics of effective teacher teams so we can build capacity within them, strengthening the organization as a whole. To further extend this collaborative power for learning, teachers can and should incorporate team-building and team problem-solving activities into their classrooms with students.

A team of researchers from Centre for Innovation in Education from the Queensland University for Technology set out to identify the characteristics of effective school-based teams through the lens of micropolitics. Their findings are relevant for schools and school-based systems dealing with school-based management and similar reforms/restructurings in that they developed a tool to assess and enhance the effectiveness of teams. Critical reflection of team dynamics should include a look at the

  • clarity of the team’s role and objectives
    • competence and credibility of the team members
    • uniformity of members’ values and their commitment to team work
    • interpersonal relationships and communication among members and between members and other staff
    • accessibility of professional development opportunities for the team and for its individual members

    Developing strengths in these dimensions will better establish school teams in that they will be more prepared to engage in decision-making processes, develop better relationships among colleagues, and embrace future possibilities rather than focus on current realities (Cranston, Ehrich, Reugebrink, & Gaven, 2002).

    I am generally pleased with the collaborative efforts my teachers are making. Each team is finding their way… each team member is defining and honing his/her role in that team. One area where we need to develop is in our team leadership/coaching roles. Team leaders were appointed and attended professional development sessions on coaching and adult learning. This experience was not enough to impress upon our teacher leaders the essential components that exemplify a true leader. They need continuous exposure to new ideas, time to conduct peer observation and reflections, and time spent with administration to work at defining and refining the shared vision and goals of the school. Most of all, these team leaders need to extend trust to all members of the team and school, and need to be trusted by all. This aspect requires a lot of work and dedication on everyone’s part.

    Finally, I’d like to share @l_hilt’s Dos & Don’ts of team dynamics….

    • Do seek to act upon that which you can positively change. Don’t be negative and dwell on things you cannot.
    • Do be a giver. Don’t be selfish.
    • Do understand that “the way we’ve always done things” is not necessarily the best way to help students learn. Don’t get sucked into a solitary cave of complacency.
    • Do communicate clearly, accurately, and respectfully. Don’t hide your feelings about a situation or make them known maliciously.
    • Do be open and accepting. Don’t be defensive.
    • Do realize that you are not the most important part of the equation. Don’t forget for one second that the child is.

    Communities and Networks

    I had the pleasure of experiencing our first Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) cohort session today, facilitated by the inspiring Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson. My teammates are four enthusiastic, elementary teachers who I could not be more pleased to have joining me on this journey, and our cohort includes about 18 different teams from our county and surrounding districts.

    I know my work with PLP will inspire many future blog posts, but today I’m going to focus on the questions Sheryl raised early in our session: What is a community? What is a network?

    General thoughts about the “community”: Tight-knit. Relationships. Comprised of people that rely on each other. A group who lives, learns, and works together toward common goals.

    General thoughts about the “network”: Comprised of people who share common interests. You can choose your network and can’t often choose your community. Larger than community. Not as intimate as your community.

    One of my PLP teammates and colleagues, Greg Frederick, simply depicted the community and network relationship as such:

    Screen shot 2010-09-15 at 1.34.03 PM

    His thoughts were that our community consists of the core of our social and intellectual interactions, and as we branch out, our network provides us with additional support and information to help us achieve our goals. Our network envelops our work within our community.

    Sheryl continued to share with us the definitions of community and network that we would be using throughout our PLP work to develop common language among the group’s participants. One of the most meaningful points of our morning discussion was the point made about collaboration. Collaboration is not about sharing, it’s about FINDING SOLUTIONS together, and about mutual accountability. Networks are created through publishing and sharing ideas and connecting with others who share passions around those ideas and who learn from one another. Over time, that co-construction of knowledge will build community.

    There are days when I definitely feel more strongly connected with my network than to my community. That being said, I can’t allow that to continue to be the case. If I become enriched by delving deeply into interactions with my network, I have a duty to bring that knowledge into my community, and vice-versa.

    So, where do we go from here? I was totally impressed with my school team today. They jumped into a seemingly frightening world filled with Twitter tutorials, an introduction to Ning and other social networking venues, and a Skype-in from the fabulous Brian Crosby. The “a-ha” moment for us came when my teachers wanted to know, “How can we get our students to make these connections with others?” And, “How can we strengthen how we collaborate with the teachers in our community to really make a difference?”

    That is our next step. We need to examine what we are doing in our classrooms and school on a daily basis and rethink how we can better engage our students in their own learning and help them develop essential, global learning networks to extend their thinking and experiences. We need to take a real look at curriculum, what we are asking students to learn, and how we’re asking them to learn it. We need to develop a system for meaningful collaboration among our peers and beyond. I have no doubt that we will begin to accomplish these goals this year.

    I’m interested in learning how other schools develop the capacity of your communities and networks. Please share your successes!

    I am so amazingly proud of the work we did today.  It’s only going to get better!

    We're in the learning business.

    I am personally struggling right now with a situation involving a child of a friend, who does not attend my school, who has had a difficult start to the school year. He says his teacher is “mean.” She has kept him in from recess on multiple days because his handwriting exercises weren’t satisfactory. She uses the word “bad” when describing his work. Stickers can be earned- for 10/10 work. When asked if he is greeted with a smile each morning, he says no. When asked if his teacher ever smiles, he responds, “Sometimes, if she’s reading a funny story.” She told the class they were going to start taking tests “just like college students.” His love of learning is being suffocated. He cries before school. He is anxious.
    He is six years old.
    These are the facts as I know them, reported from the boy’s parents. He is not a student at my school, but I’ve known him all my life. I know he is a creative, artistic, hard-working, honest, intelligent, imaginative, empathetic, enthusiastic child. He aims to please. He is every teacher’s dream.
    So. I am a principal. The thought of him, or any child, being subjected to this type of treatment in a primary classroom, or any classroom for that matter, is devastating to me. It disappoints me. It infuriates me, and I want to do something about it.
    Every administrator will eventually encounter a concern or complaint from a parent regarding the way his/her child is being treated by a teacher. Or about the teacher’s rules. Or homework policies. Or grading system. Or projects. What to do?
    Like many in my PLN, I’m fascinated about the buzz surrounding a father’s simple observation on his daughter’s Meet the Teacher night and the ensuing discussions/explosions about how parents should or should not insert themselves into the facets of their child’s educational experience. Teachers, administrators, and parents chimed in on Will Richardson’s post that reflected on Alec Couros’s tweet and detailed his own frustrations with his children’s schools. Lee Kolbert’s post proceeded to delineate the ways in which she must “suck” as a teacher because she sets clear expectations for behaviors in her classroom.
    Does any parent want less than the best for his child? In my experience, no. This simple fact has helped me tremendously in dealing with disgruntled, angry, upset, confused, and scared parents. I listen to concerns, no matter how ridiculous I may think they are. I entertain heated conversations so long as they remain respectful.

    My young friend’s mother cried to me on the phone, “I send him to that school for 8 hours a day. He is in her care for 8 hours. How can I feel comfortable allowing him to get on the bus each morning when I know he is so unhappy?”
    Simple. She can’t. She needs to make her voice heard. Legitimate concerns have to be brought to the teacher’s attention. So while I resist the urge to email my thoughts about this particular teacher to the school’s principal (and believe me, I’ve already crafted that communication in my head ten times over), I encouraged my friend to request a conference with the teacher directly. I told her I’d support her in any way I could, and that if she didn’t get a positive response, that I’d help her move to the next level.
    Why? Am I out to get the teacher? No. I’m out to help the student. If my young friend would walk through the door of his first grade classroom feeling as though he was appreciated, that his work was valuable, and that he was cared for, the struggle to perfect his Zaner-Bloser “M”s might not be such a struggle at all.
    Every school needs a well-established system for involving parents, one that is structured, public, and accessible to all. Parents need to know that their voices ARE important. I encourage my teachers to continue developing strong relationships with parents, and vice-versa.  If a parent calls me on the phone or emails me about a classroom issue before he/she has contacted the classroom teacher, I inform the parent that I appreciate the contact, but please call the teacher to discuss this, because he/she is so much more knowledgeable about that particular issue than I am.
    More often than not, parents call me directly because of the incredible emotion they are feeling about the situation. That can scare a teacher, but sometimes I think teachers are so caught on the defensive that they fail to remember that the parent’s involvement in their children’s education SHOULD be emotional. We should ALL be emotional about the education of our children.
    My school’s home-school communication forums were somewhat lacking when I arrived three years ago. In the past three years, I have seen teachers go from monthly or zero communications to weekly posts on their classroom webpages; beautifully designed, informative, and student-created monthly newsletters; more email communication; increased phone calls to parents and teachers providing parents with their personal cell phone numbers so they can be reached after school hours; a school newspaper with articles published by students; monthly newsletters from the principals office and principal webpage updates; a school Twitter account (still catching on, but we’ll get there); hundreds of parent and family visitors for school breakfasts and events with our students; and greater attendance at parent-teacher organization meetings. That doesn’t happen by accident. You have to want it to happen. You have to make it happen.
    As a teacher, I worked with many students whose parents were also teachers, and I made sure to step up my game when it came to communicating with them. Why? Because I knew they knew what they were talking about. I considered that they were judging everything I did in the classroom, every project their child was assigned, every test score, and every newsletter I mailed home. They kept me on my toes, and I appreciated their feedback.
    No teacher wants to hear that her classroom isn’t the ideal place to learn. But in a profession where it’s so easy to fall into “complacency mode,” we have to encourage our teachers to rethink what they do on a daily basis, and to take suggestions from well-intentioned, knowledgeable parents, colleagues, and administration under consideration. I will do the same.
    I have faith that my first grade friend will see an improvement in his daily school life after his parents meet with his teacher and openly discuss their concerns. Together, I believe his parents and teacher will brainstorm ideas about how to reduce his anxiety and support his learning.
    We’re all in this together. In my mind, there are very few instances where communicating your thoughts respectfully with a teacher or principal can be detrimental. Even if no action is immediately taken, constructive criticisms will make people think and will help them learn.
    After all, this is the learning business, isn’t it?

    Who are the Problem Solvers?

    Many look to the principal to be the problem solver.

    We can’t agree on how to schedule these students. What should we do?
    There’s an issue with the lunch cards in the cafeteria. How should we handle it?
    My child is being bothered by another student. Can you help us?
    We’ve tried many different instructional approaches with this child, but he’s still not understanding. What can we try next?
    Most principals are inherently skilled problem solvers. One of the benefits we have in our role is being able to step outside of the situation and view the varied aspects of the problem before offering input into how it can best be solved. As sometimes uninvolved participants in the conflict, we can remain cool-headed, consider all options, and draw upon our experiences to help craft possible solutions. John Gardner reflects in On Leadership that leaders who work to resolve conflicts use their influences to eliminate irrational demands, and “foster the transition from a cross fire of accusations to a collaborative search for solutions” (p. 105). Leaders look for the underlying causes of the disputes. Is it a lack of communication? Insensitivity to needs? Leaders then work to solve conflict in an environment of open communication and honesty and explore all alternative solutions.

    Let’s examine the graphic above, shared from one of my favorite sites, Indexed. (Go to this site after you are finished reading my post. And after you are finished commenting. It’s so smart.) On one hand, the graphic is an accurate representation of how someone from outside of the situation can bring a unique, honest, unfiltered perspective on the conflict. It is sometimes easier for that person to recognize a solution and thus, it becomes less “impossible” to solve. However, personal accountability is huge. The more invested in a situation someone is, the more difficult, ultimately, it is to solve the problem. But truly, can anyone other than the people so deeply involved make the change?

    Principals are certainly not the only problem solvers in the school. In fact, some of the best principals will insist that teachers who raise an issue also present possible resolutions to that problem. Last year a team of teacher leaders in our building read John G. Miller’s QBQ: The Question Behind the Question: What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Complaining and Procrastination. Intense subtitle aside, the guidelines within this text really help you focus on what you can do to alleviate a problem as opposed to look to others to solve the problem for you. When a teacher asks, “How can I improve this situation?” “What can I contribute?” or “How can I make a difference?” he is placing himself in a different frame of mind that will empower him to be an active part of finding the solution to the problem, not just bringing the issue to someone else’s attention.

    How do these principles apply to our lives in schools? Reading Brian Crosby’s words about what teachers need from administrators helped me reflect on the fact that most teachers want to be held accountable, want to be involved in the change process, and want to do what it takes to improve their practice and their schools. They don’t want change handed to them- they want to be active participants in the process. Anyone who has ever tried to initiate change in an organization knows that conflict will certainly rear its ugly head at some (and likely, all) points in the process. Problems will need to be solved.

    Carry this premise into the classroom as well. Teachers and staff should model for students what effective problem solving looks like – identify the issue, examine the facts, determine the emotional elements involved, brainstorm possible solutions and the consequences of each, agree on some form of action, and continually reflect on that decision to ensure it was right. Students will absolutely need to be adept problem solvers in all capacities in their adult lives, and we need to help them hold themselves accountable for the fact that they do have the power and skills to make the right choices.

    Principals are problem solvers, but we cannot, and should not, do it alone. We need the expertise and creative solutions of our faculties, parents, and students to help us. I’d love to learn about the different approaches to problem solving in your schools!

    A principal's first day of school….

    Screen shot 2010-08-31 at 8.09.50 AM

    (Author’s note: The full title of this post is A Principal’s First Day of School: Ramblings of a Crazyperson.)

    Most of us know what it’s like to be a student on the very first day of school. We lived it: new backpack, school supplies, and choosing the perfect outfit. Many of us who have spent time in the classroom know what it’s like for a teacher on the first day of school: newly labeled folders, clean desks with new student name labels, the best new dry erase markers the school supply closet could offer, and a new outfit (complete with sensible shoes).

    What does a principal feel, do, hear, say, and think on the first day of school? I’ll tell you.

    5 AM: First decision of the day. Do I wake up now, exercise, and then go to school; or sleep in, go to work a bit earlier, and exercise after school? The aches in my muscles from Saturday’s alumni hockey game coerced me into option B. Which I would later regret.

    6:40 AM: Out the door. Students arrive at 8:45 AM, so that’s plenty of time to get my act together before the buses pull in!

    7:20 AM: Arrived in the office. Surprisingly remembered everything I wanted to bring today!

    7:25 AM: A gift waiting for me, hanging in a pretty bag on my office doorknob. While the gift was very cool, the accompanying card made my day. One of my teachers took the time to write me a card of appreciation. Her words were so beautiful and truly made me feel like a special part of our school. Could not have asked for a more amazing start to my day!

    8:20 AM: First students arrive at the doors with some family members. Students are permitted to enter at 8:45 AM. Have to find a place for these students and their families to spend the next 20 minutes!

    8:21 AM: Why did I wear heels today? What was I thinking?

    8:30 AM: Brought my Flipcam to the office last week so it would be ready to shoot first day footage. Opened the box. No Flipcam inside. Guess I should have doublechecked to make sure the camera was actually in the box.

    8:35 AM: Librarian kind enough to help me check out one of the school’s Flipcams.

    8:40 AM: Assembled parent volunteers and staff supervising arrival. Go time!

    8:45 AM-9:00 AM: Arrival supervision, helped 1st and 2nd graders find their homerooms. Assumed role of Principal Paparazzi, Flipcam in one hand and SLR in the other. 80+, humid degrees outside at this early hour. Why did I wear this suit jacket? What was I thinking?

    9:00 AM-9:20 AM: Very, very unhappy young person in Grade 1. Won’t stay in the classroom. Tears. Screams. Parents still there, comforting him in the hallways. Consulted our trusty guidance counselor and watched her sweep in to save the day. Parents were equally as shaken as the little guy. Promised we’d call dad soon to update.

    9:20 AM: Peeked at my inbox. 12 new emails. Moving on.

    9:20-10:40 AM: Classroom visits, photos, video, introductions, Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe, This is how you line up when it’s time to go to lunch from the playground, What did you do this summer, Are you glad to be back? We’re so happy you’re here!

    10:40 AM: Overheard in the office, “Mr. Jeff? Mrs. B. was just outside on the playground. There’s a dead bird on the jungle gym. And there are bees swarming all over it.”

    10:45 AM – Finished a clerical task to help with recess flow. Should have done this in August. Totally overlooked it. Ate a lollipop.

    11:00 AM: Prepping to head outside to supervise first recess. 22 new emails. Moving on.

    11:10 AM: Teacher asked me to give her heads-up about “real” fire drills. She practiced one today, and a student was so shaken he asked to hide under her arms.

    11:20 AM: Recess shoes on. 🙂 Blackberry on hip. Incessant buzzing.

    11:25 AM: First and second graders flee to the playgrounds! So…. hot….out….side. How do these kids do it?! Talk strategy with the school monitors and counselor about how we’d like to arrange play areas outside and control the traffic flow into the cafe. Impressed with our superbly behaved primary students! We might just make this recess before lunch schedule work to perfection.

    11:55 AM: Did you know 6-yr. olds take their sweet time eating meals? Recess/lunch schedule bumped 5 minutes for the next two periods.

    12:00 PM-1:20 PM: Made many rounds from the recess to the cafe and back. Is that the superintendent? I think I see him over this crowd of students, but I can’t dwell on that right now because I’m trying to open this milk container for a thirsty third grader.

    1:15 PM – Buzz on hip. Glance at message – call the Assistant Superintendent. Really? Today? People are working in offices today?

    1:20 PM: Called her. Have to migrate students into their new classes in the DIBELS system. Awesome!

    1:25 PM: Lunch = spoonfuls of Kashi into vanilla yogurt. Lunch of champions. Eavesdropping on the 4th grade conversation outside my office during one of those whole-group-bathroom-breaks-aka-the-bane-of-my-existence. “No, it goes G, PG, PG-13, R, and unrated. Unrated means it’s so bad, you can’t watch it.”

    1:45 PM: Filtered through some emails. Only read the ones from my supervisors and my secretaries. Oh, and the one from IT that said they accidentally closed the work order I submitted to have my printer fixed. Could I please resubmit another one?

    1:50 PM: Trusty counselor wanted to update her guidance page on the wiki with a pdf of her newly revised schedule. We reviewed saving Word docs in pdf format, and I walked her through uploading a doc to the wiki. When we arrived at the step where she needed to FIND the file she wanted to upload, we hit a brick wall. Resisted urge to grab her laptop and do it myself. Encouraged her to save it to the desktop for ease of uploading. When I told her to do a better job organizing her files, she replied, “Stop it! I’m old.” (She isn’t. And she uploaded successfully).

    2:00 PM: Oh my goodness! I totally spaced on visiting the AM kindergarten class this morning! I was so consumed with introducing the recess procedures to the first graders!! I CANNOT forget to go to PM Kindergarten!

    2:02 PM: There is no kindergarten today. It’s a visitation day. Sigh.

    2:03 PM: Lollipop.

    2:04 PM: More classroom visits! 2nd graders in art class, two of whom informed me they were “boyfriend and girlfriend,” to which I promptly replied, “No, you aren’t.” 5th grade scientists performed an experiment to review the steps of the scientific method, 6th graders created acrostic projects, Life skills students worked in small groups on hands-on learning activities.

    3:00 PM: Thinking, when did these children get so tall?

    3:25 PM: Dismissal. The gang’s outside ready to supervise when the mass exodus begins. Secretary armed with a bus list. Same for teachers. Apparently we live in the tropics. The sun is seriously beating down on us.

    3:35 PM: The buses pulled away with children safely on board. Success!! What a day!

    3:40 PM: Post-dismissal run down with some teachers, my support specialist shared schedules with me. Joked with the counselor that we’re both contemplating wearing sneakers for tomorrow’s recess supervision. And I told her I was going to blog about her wiki skills.

    3:50 PM: Checked email, clerical tasks, talking with one of our custodians who visits my office after work to empty my trash and who calls me “boss.” I asked him what’s new? “Nothing, and there’s no use complaining anyway, since no one will listen.”

    4:10 PM: My to-do list (on paper, always on paper) is updated. And by updated, I mean that 5 things were added to it. And none were crossed off.

    4:20 PM: So quiet…with the little pitter-patter of feet go the hustle and bustle of voices and laughter and noise. But inside these quiet rooms I know there are dedicated teachers reviewing their lesson plans, pondering how to best reach the new children they’ve met today, and gearing up to start all over again tomorrow.

    4:40 PM: Heading home. I have to exercise before dinner. And write a blog post.

    I have before referenced Fullan in my posts, but one particular chapter of The New Meaning of Educational Change really struck a chord with me, and my mind kept coming back to it today. Chapter 8, simply titled, “The Principal,” explores the principal as the center of the relationships between teachers and external ideas and people.

    2,000 interactions every day – that’s what principals encounter. Fullan describes the characteristics of principal burnout. Have you, as a principal, ever felt: guilty at the end of the day because you didn’t accomplish everything you set out to? Addicted to the social aspect of your role and fidgety in meetings because they’re slow and you crave those personal interactions? As though you’re not as effective as you once were? A reality shock of knowing you are working in a job that you are very scarcely prepared for?

    These notions are so scary, but for educational leaders everywhere, there is hope. Those of us who have connected with others through social media and through networks of professionals in our districts and states know this to be true. Fullan (2007) states

    At the present time the principalship is not worth it, and therein lies the solution. If effective principals energize teachers in complex times, what is going to energize principals? We are now beginning to see more clearly examples of school principals who are successful. These insights can help existing principals become more effective; even more, they provide a basis for establishing a system of recruiting, nurturing, and supporting and holding accountable school leaders (p. 159).

    Let’s help each other through the first days, and every day, as we work to bring about educational change and do what’s best for kids!

    And thus ends the day in the life of a principal.

    Searching for answers…

    Today  is opening day for teachers! Exclamation mark!

    As a teacher as I was always curious about what messages our principal would be sharing with us on opening day. As a principal, I’m always curious about how my teachers will react to the messages I will be sharing with them on opening day. When developing schedules for the next two days, I was inspired to scale back on the amount of time I ask teachers to sit in meetings with me, and rather trust that they will use their classroom preparation time wisely in order to finalize everything for students’ arrival on Monday. I’m going to work hard at focusing on relationships this year, developing trust with our stakeholders, and, as always, keeping the needs of our students our top priority.

    This year is my third in administration, and I have fallen into the intriguing position of “elementary principal with the most years of experience” in our school district. (Insert giggles, shock, awe, pity, etc.) By default, I’m the “expert” on how things work at the elementary level. I use the word expert loosely.Very loosely. I may know more than I probably realize I know, but when faced with a question from a new administrative colleague or teacher, I have resolved to be comfortable with the answer, “I don’t know.”

    “I don’t know” are three scary words. Speaking them admits a certain vulnerability that not all leaders are comfortable revealing.

    What if you truly don’t know? What’s next?

    Simple- you learn. You seek answers to your questions. Principals need to be skilled learners, and model the habit of lifelong learning to students, teachers, and their school community. Here are some ways I continue learning every single day of my life and seek the answers to my questions.

    Surround yourself with smart people.

    I work with some amazingly gifted educators. My support specialists have in-depth knowledge of reading, interventions, data, and curriculum that I will probably never have. Several of my classroom teachers are the most creative, kind, energetic souls I have ever met. My administrative team is small, but mighty, and when we’re in a roundtable discussion about any topic, I truly am thankful for the support that they provide. My students are smart. They teach me something new every day.

    To echo a sentiment that has been expressed here many times over, I so appreciate the network of professionals I’ve “met” through Twitter and other social media. I try to impress upon my teachers the importance of stepping outside of their classroom walls, our school’s walls, and our district boundaries, and learning about the innovative experiences of other schools. Outside perspective is amazingly valuable.

    These are just a handful of the people that inspire me every day, a list I created here. I’m not sure exactly what constitutes being honored as a Twitter BFF, but I’m pretty sure it means that you’re awesome, so thank you to all of my friends for contributing to my lifelong learning experiences and helping me better myself by finding the answers.

    Screen shot 2010-08-25 at 5.36.10 AM


    Admittedly, there are 630 unread feeds in my Google Reader, but I will, by the end of the weekend, catch up. As a teacher I did not do a lot of professional reading. Three years ago on a plane I read Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and it reignited my passion for learning about learning. In graduate courses this year I was inspired by Fullan, Zhao, and Friedman. I listened to Gladwell’s The Outliers on audiobook religiously for a week as he fascinated me with tales of Canadian hockey-playing youth and Microsoft leaders and his theories on achievement gaps. I’m working through Curriculum 21 and will use it to guide my technology integration work with teachers. I can’t comprehend how a book published in 1969 contains so much relevant commentary on what’s right and what’s wrong with education. I read the best tools compiled by Richard Byrne, am inspired by Shelly and the #edchat crew, and love being challenged by the mind of Lisa Nielson. I learn how to be a better administrator when I read anything written by Chris or George or David and all contributors to the Connected Principals blog and elsewhere.

    Ask for help. And listen.

    The answers don’t come easy. Admitting you don’t know is step 1. Truly, actively listening to others is what will help you discover the answers. Administrators interact thousands of times every single day with their students, staff, and parents. This year I’m going to make a better effort to stop the one million thoughts running through my brain, if only temporarily, to focus on the person in front of me. I’m going to be present. I’m going to listen and find the answers.

    Take a break.

    Being an administrator can be isolating, frustrating, terrifying, aggravating, and downright exhausting. The good news? Its reward is unrivaled. But there will be days when you just have to step away from it all, and do something for you. The answers will come easier when you do. Go for a run, hug your dogs, visit the park with your family, watch reality television, or blast The Killers in your office at inappropriate decibels and just be.

    Your staff and students don’t expect you to have all of the answers, but they do expect you to want to find them.

    What's best for kids?

    “It’s what’s best for kids.”

    Have you heard an administrator use this phrase to justify decisions? Did you think, “Cliche.” Or, “Easy for her to say.” Or, “How convenient, no one can argue with the merits of We do what’s best for kids.”

    Well, it’s true! Who can argue with it? No right-minded educator, that’s for sure.

    Administrators who say this, and mean it, stay focused on student needs and make students the center of the decision-making process. Those of you that are parents, or who have a child in their personal lives in any capacity (here’s where I gush about my sweet, sweet new nephew who was born today!) exist in a reality where in their family, children are the centers of their lives.

    Children are, and should always be, our focus. Our schools should be families. What are some ways to transform your school into a family of learners?

    Include parents. Often. Always. See David Truss’s thoughts on doing so. At our school, we held our first Moms & Muffins and Dads & Donuts mornings this year. All extended family members invited, too! We had an amaaazing turnout. It was unreal! I have never seen so many people packed into our cafeteria. I met Dads and Moms I’d never met before. Parents walked their children to homerooms after our breakfast. Some stayed to volunteer for the day. What a beautiful thing!

    Build morale, the subject of recent posts by Dave Bircher and Janet Avery by making connections and building relationships with staff and community members. Show them videos of your dogs. Ask them about their families and their summer vacations. To start our opening day, we’re doing a round of “speed dating”-esque reconnect time where we’ll get in two circles, and every 2 minutes, the people in the inside people will move to the left. Two minutes, introduce yourself and tell them all about your summer/life. Tell your partner one goal you have for the school year. We had a difficult year last year, when a colleague passed away from breast cancer. This year will continue to be about healing. As the principal, I need to support my colleagues in their grief and help build relationships, because the success of our students depends on it.

    Get to know, and love, your students. When I hear teachers say, “I don’t have to like all of my students, I just have to act like I do,” I get really tense and uncomfortable and a whole list of other adjectives. There are students who will always push your buttons. I was one of them, I know I was. Get to know each and every child on a personal level. Find out what they’re all about. How else can you possible expect them to respect you? Because you’re the teacher? Because you’re the principal? Children respect those that show them respect. They’re children.  Know your students on a personal level, because doing so will make discussions about behavior that much easier. George Couros often explores the importance of developing rapport with his students and the positive impacts this has on his practices.

    I will conclude with just one example of when I was convinced that the children I serve are indeed part of my family. A  young man in an intermediate grade made some unwise choices, and was spending the day in my office. He was getting a bad rap around the school (and frankly, the community) for his behaviors, and it seemed as though the whole world was against him. His classmates were in the hallway outside of my office en route to the library, and not only did every single one of them crane their necks to see how he was doing in my office, several of them said, “Hi, buddy!” and “How are you, friend?” from their place in line. One boy in his class, a boy who was also known for lapses in judgment, asked to come inside my office and see his friend. He walked over to the boy, put his arm around his shoulder, and quietly, almost in a whisper, encouragingly said, “It’s okay, buddy. We all make bad choices sometimes. We know you’re a good kid.” And he turned on his heel and headed back to the line.

    My heart burst.

    We do what’s best for kids. They’re our family. Their teachers and parents are family. As educational leaders, we’re the head of this family, and we have to commit to making it the best it can be.

    Charting Your Course

    From Flickr user yachtfan

    “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Seneca

    For many, the new school year has already begun. For others, we are in the final planning stages before teachers and students return. Where will you lead your school this year? How do you determine to which “port” you are sailing? How do you chart your course for success, and how will you use your resources to make it happen?

    As a newbie principal in the state of Pennsylvania, I am required to complete coursework through the National Institute for School Leadership. In our introductory course we considered the role of principal as “strategic thinker.” We took a good look at vision and how leaders develop and sustain meaningful vision, referencing The Principal Challenge: Leading And Managing Schools in an Era of Accountability (Tucker and Codding, editors).

    Our facilitator asked us to come to class prepared with our district’s vision and mission statements in hand. Before class, he randomly organized and posted them so our districts could not be identified, and the “dissection” began! What were we looking for? We assessed each statement by asking the following questions. Is/does the vision….

    Achievable? Why include statements in a vision statement that are unattainable? Doing so will frustrate the organization, and the vision will not be realized.

    Focused on results that lead to accountability? Educators need to be held accountable for the work that they do. A vision that articulates a focus on results will help drive the organization to routinely assess the impact of their actions.

    Measurable? How will the school know when their vision is achieved? How will it know when it’s veering from the intended course?

    Simple and clear? How many of us can actually recite our district’s vision statements verbatim? (Or even recall where we have last seen it?!) This is not to say the statement should be short, sweet, and without substance, nor are long, eloquently written vision statements any more meaningful. Simple, clear language is necessary to make the vision…

    Actionable? To achieve this vision, what will we DO to achieve it? What is our strategy? Who are the key players involved? What is the timeline? What resources do we need?

    Lead to hard choices? In order to achieve the goals of the organization, sacrifices in other areas must be made. In accordance with our vision, where do we focus our efforts to ensure it is realized?

    Worth fighting for? Above all else, if a school’s stakeholders don’t believe the vision is worth fighting for,  it is not likely to be attained. And what is more worth fighting for than the education of our children?

    It turns out, most of our example vision statements met at least two or more of the criteria, but not a single one would be considered an exemplary vision for a school. Many were almost poetic, yet not actionable. Others were vague and unmeasurable.

    The start of a new school year is the perfect time to re-focus our efforts where they matter most. As educational leaders, we need to be able to identify our school’s/district’s vision and priorities. We need to keep The End in mind – our goals. We need to formulate The Ways – strategies for achieving our goals. We need to develop The Means– our people and resources that will help us meet our goals and realize our vision.

    Sail on!

    Leading with Walkthroughs


    Walkthrough observations take many forms in the elementary, middle, and secondary levels. This practice typically involves the principal or other supervisor spending a few minutes observing a classroom to take a quick pulse of the teaching and learning occurring. Some districts tie walkthrough reports into the formal teacher evaluation system. Others use walkthrough forms to provide informal feedback to teachers. No matter what system is used, there are several characteristics of walkthroughs that in my experience have made them more effective in changing teacher practice.

    1. Decide on your “look-fors,” and be sure teachers are well-versed in this content.

    Our district utilizes the iObservation system for walkthrough observations. iObservation provides a variety of comprehensive walkthrough forms based on the works of Marzano and Danielson. Many of the qualities of Learning Focused Schools are also represented on the forms, and since our teachers are expected to utilize these strategies in their instruction, the iObservation system provides us with many look-for options in the classroom. The forms I used most frequently last year were the Research-Based Instructional Strategies K-12, Research-Based Classroom Management K-12, and Teaching Authentic forms. Our district also has the option of accessing our state’s formal evaluation forms through this system. We use tablet PCs to visit classrooms, complete the checklist forms of the strategies we see in, and can add narratives when needed. iObservation includes banks of coaching questions to help lead discussions with teachers, as well as rubrics that identify teachers as Beginning through Innovating on specific strategies. The rubrics are probably the most powerful aspect of the program, as teachers can identify where they are on the rubric, and using the descriptors provided, work to improve to the Innovating level. For many strategies, there are embedded “Best Practices” videos that teachers can watch to see a master teacher execute the strategy in the classroom. It’s a comprehensive program that we have not yet used to its fullest potential.

    The article Classroom walkthroughs: Learning to see the trees and the forest by Howard Pitler with Bryan Goodwin provides solid examples of look-fors in the classroom. They suggest principals ask these six questions to guide their classroom observations: Are teachers using research-based teaching strategies? Do student grouping patterns support learning? Are teachers and students using technology to support student learning? Do students understand their learning goals? Are students learning both basic and higher order levels of knowledge? Do student achievement data correlate with walkthrough data? The authors conclude with their thoughts that walkthrough observations should be used for coaching, not evaluation. Walkthroughs can be used to measure the school’s staff development efforts as well.

    iObservation is an instructional and leadership improvement system. It collects, manages and reports longitudinal data from classroom walkthroughs and teacher observations. Teacher growth and leadership practices inform professional development differentiated to individual learning needs for every teacher and leader to increase his/her effectiveness each year.

    Another tool I’m looking forward to using this year is ISTE’s Classroom Observation Tool (ICOT). This is a free online tool that helps administrators and observers look for key components of technology integration in the classroom. What I appreciate about this tool is that it does not focus strictly on technology use, but also on student grouping practices, varied learning activities, and NETS Teachers Standards observed.

    Look-fors will vary from school to school, but it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable about what supervisors will be observing on their visits, and that they are supported in using these strategies in the classroom.

    2. Follow-up conversations are crucial.

    Our teachers truly desire constructive feedback about their practice. Though it might not always be easy to hear, a teacher cannot possibly seek to improve without input from a supervisor or colleague. A walkthrough observation is not complete without some type of follow-up conversation. This can be as informal as making sure you drop into the teacher’s room after school to comment on the positive practices you saw, to offer suggestions for improvements, and to share your walkthrough paperwork. In our iObservation system, our teachers log in to access their completed forms. They can start an online conference in a confidential message-board-type-forum with the observer to answer any questions that were posed, or interactions can occur via the iObservation email system. The reflective practice component of walkthroughs is vital.

    3. Talk to students!

    I do not complete a walkthrough without talking to at least one student in the classroom. Questions I typically ask include, What is your essential question for this lesson? What do you think your teacher wants you to learn as a result of completing this activity? How will you know that  you have learned (insert objective here). How do you know your work meets the standards set for you? I also enjoy when students read their writing to me or show me their latest project work. If I am observing learning centers, I like to join in the fun!

    Walkthrough observations were recently the topic of discussion on the #cpchat and #edadmin hashtag on Twitter, so be sure to check out the meaningful discussions to learn more. This year, I hope to expand the use of iObservation for peer-peer learning walks and observations. Administrators and teachers, please consider commenting on this post with walkthrough practices you’ve found to be most effective, or most ineffective.

    It's people, not programs

    One of the most positive aspects of interacting with other educators via social media, whether it be Twitter, Ning communities, or a meeting of the minds such as the Reform Symposium, is the array of talented individuals working in education today. It is quite apparent to me that there are extraordinary teachers and administrators participating and sharing their ideas in these forums. What makes these teachers stand out from the rest? What qualities do these administrators have that make us want to follow, want to emulate, their lead?

    Todd Whitaker’s What Great Principals Do Differently was on my summer reading list. Whitaker examines 14 qualities of “Great Principals.” This is a fast read, but a compelling one. As a principal I could envision a real-life scenario of every aspect of quality leadership Whitaker described. His points caused me to pause and reflect about how I could have handled a situation differently, how I could have approached a teacher’s behavior rather than her belief, and how I needed to serve as the “filter” for my school. I hope to elaborate on these points in my next several posts.

    It’s people, not programs.

    Isn’t this the truth? How often do schools, teachers, and administrators buy into a program or tool, thinking (hoping, praying) it will be the golden ticket to improved reading scores, or math fact fluency, or a more positive school climate? Too often. This year we tried a new math fact fluency program. After hearing from our teachers at grade level meetings that our students could use a boost in fact fluency, I researched various programs. I read reviews and consulted with former colleagues who used the program, so I thought it would be the perfect fit. I provided teachers with the program framework and all necessary documents and folders, and also showed examples of how “real live teachers” included it into their daily routine. The results were definitely mixed. Some teachers embraced the program and integrated it seamlessly into their math instruction. Others struggled with the maintenance of the student folders, tasks, and how to include it in their schedules. The program was the same for all teachers- what varied was how the teachers approached this new idea, and that was because I needed to abandon the “one size fits all” approach to implementing this program. Instead I should have provided varied levels of support to teachers to accommodate the different levels of understanding and comfort with the new tool.

    As you prepare to start your new school year, consider the changes your teachers will face with curriculum transitions, new programs, and updated procedures. Focus your efforts on the people, not the programs, for the greatest benefit to students.

    The best part about learning through social media? Not the tools or the programs. It’s the people!

    Hands together