Two years ago, my campus learned about No Excuses University. It happened accidentally when a visitor to our campus said, “Oh, you’re an NEU Campus.” I had no idea what it the world NEU was, so I looked it up. Basically, it is the implementation of best practices for instruction, combined with a passion for the learning of all students. It is a fierce commitment to adults not making excuses about why a child cannot succeed in school, but rather doing whatever it takes to overcome barriers and ensure that all children (no matter their background, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or disability) are proficient or advanced in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics so that they can go to college if they choose.
In trying to be aligned to this belief, my campus has looked at the students who we believed were not quite ready to hit that “proficient or advanced” expectation and created what we call NEU Saturday. This is a time where selected students come to school on Saturday for two hours so that they have a little extra time to learn. I need to be clear. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with our state assessment. My commitment is not to a test, but to these children’s being prepared for their future. If we do that right, they’ll be fine on a test, but the test isn’t the driving force.
Because we aren’t bound by constraints of tutoring for a test, we serve all grades. YES, all grades, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. They come and a band of teachers welcome these children with open arms and celebrate the child’s commitment to his education. So many of my students are still learning that things don’t just happen to them, but through the choices they make, they have the power to change the direction of their lives. I tell each one of the students that they are the “chosen” ones. That their teachers specifically chose them to come to this special time because of the grit, growth mindset and commitment to no excuses they make every day.
We feed them a full breakfast. While I know it is big talk in Washington D.C. that breakfast doesn’t make a difference in education, that is just plain malarky. When people are hungry, they can’t think about anything, but their stomach growling and “hangry” is a reality. Many of my children rely on the food from school as their primary source of nutrition. It’s just a sack breakfast with cereal or a muffin, string cheese, juice, and milk, but knowing my students are getting one extra meal over the weekend makes a huge difference.
Then for the next two hours, I have an incredible staff that pours into these children. They talk with them, hug them, and provide them with meaningful learning. They do cool activities with Versa-tiles, read, and play games with higher-level thinking and strategy. There’s not one test prep material. Only opportunities for the students to think, discuss and problem solve in meaningful situations. The best part is that these students say this is the best day of the week and and ask to come back on Sunday, too!
There’s lots of criticism about public schools and their effectiveness. I haven’t seen that. Public education is the heart of our society’s future. It takes ensuring that all children have access to a quality education to ensure they have the tools to become productive citizens in the future. It is when we take off the constraints off and allow educators to do what they love and teach that this happens. They do whatever it takes because this is why we get into teaching: to see all children succeed. No excuses.
Pep Rallies before a standardized test have become a common occurrence in schools. A campus principal’s email can be flooded with people who want to get paid to be a part of these “pep rallies”. I have been a part of this practice in the past, but since becoming a principal, I have been against this type of practice. Why, because a ” STAAR Pep Rally” makes the important thing the test. It sends the message to those people outside education that “the test” is what is important. I am here to say a standardized test is the LEAST important thing that happens during a school year.
A test is what happens on one single day to measure all the learning that takes place in the course of a school year. For it to be an accurate measure, all the variables for that would have to be absolutely perfect. Students would have to have a great night’s’ sleep, a well-balanced breakfast, a supportive emotional environment before school, and all the supports they need to be successful.
Let’s face it. Some students have trauma at home. Many don’t have basic needs met. They don’t always have the nutrition they need. They may not get adequate sleep. Even our students with disabilities don’t have access to all their IEP interventions because of the rules of the test. The variables are not the best case scenario for some kids. How in the world could we expect the test to accurately reflect all they have mastered?
Here is what I am willing to rally over: students, teachers, grit, growth mindset and all they have accomplished over the ENTIRE year. At my school, we do this every Friday. Today, on the eve of our standardized test, my students did come to the cafeteria to meet with me. The rest of the building lined the hallway to applaud their hard work and let them know we stand with them. It was not a STAAR Pep Rally. It was a celebration of people who work hard to grow in their learning. It was caring about the people enough to let them know they were loved, supported, prepared, and in control of their destiny.
When students arrived, I shared with them my story of having to retake the GRE to get into graduate school to work on my doctorate. As I sat down to take this test, I felt angry and frustrated. I felt like there were some words that no one used, so impossibly worded questions, and I just felt there was no way that that test could accurately encompass who I was as a principal or a learner. It hit me that this was how some of my students felt.
I told my students that there was no way that tomorrow’s test could define them either. There was no way that this test could fully share with legislators or the public how much they had learned this past year. What I did tell these students was that they were in control, that they had the power to control their destiny. I shared with my fifth graders that sometimes, working hard at a test can give you a benefit. That while my test couldn’t define me, it could gain me access to a program I wanted to be a part of to improve my life.
For them, working hard to “show what they know” could prevent them from retaking this test in a few weeks, but it would be their choice. I told my fourth graders that while they weren’t facing a retest, the evidence does show that every time they pass a test like this, it increases their chances of passing the next one. No matter what, I told them they were in control. I wanted them to know they were prepared and had everything they needed. If they wanted it, they could achieve it.
I think that is what it is all about: empowering students to know that they have control over their education. The focus should never be on a test, but the people taking the test and continual reminders that even as children, they get to choose, they get to decide how to define themselves.
We put tremendous pressure on students to “pass.” The truth is our actions should support our beliefs. At my campus we don’t have a test pep rally, we have a “hope rally” every single week where we celebrate teachers, students, and the power of education together as a campus. While today I did bring students down to meet with me before they take their test tomorrow, it was never about the test. It was ALWAYS about the people. Whatever happens, tomorrow doesn’t really change anything. Don’t get me wrong. I want all of my students to do well because I know it makes their life easier in the long wrong. However, I know what my students have learned, how they have grown, and how much they have overcome and it far exceeds the constraints of a multiple choice test!
This is a great read if you don’t understand why public schools are NOT failing. For example, if you looked only at my campus’ non-disabled, non economically disadvantaged and native English speakers, we would be at the top of the charts. Even so, we are climbing those charts because we educate all children in a social-emotionally healthy, rigorous way.
The great thing about America is that everyone has opportunity. You don’t have to be wealthy, non disabled, or meet a standard to get the in. We start with whatever you give us and grow you. In public education we educate every child. And here’s the great news, if you want a different product or possibility, you can home school, or choose a private school.
Just remember, our constitution guarantees a FREE and APPROPRIATE, PUBLIC education. Everyone having a quality education is how we make America great, not through soft segregation. If you think public schools can improve, roll up your sleeves and help.
If you decide not to help, please just don’t take every report you read at face value. Rates of American Public Schools include all children. Private schools, Charter schools, and schools from other countries often have selective processes. One’s an apple, one is an orange. However, unlike the picture above, these reports and media stories are clearly labeled as such. Make sure you only compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.
While sometimes silence of welcomed, I have to say that in a learning organization, silence can be deadly. Silence in a learning organization means a lack of feedback. It means that people are likely too content, apathetic, scared or angry to communicate with specific feedback, and this is dangerous. It reminds me of the Simon and Garfunkel song:
In a learning organization, feedback is critical to growth. Sometimes this feedback is positive: “You’re on the right track.” “The effort is paying off.” “The strategy you are using is getting results.” Sometimes feedback offers a correction: “Instead of this, I need you to…” “It might work better if…” “Next time I’d rather you …” Other times feedback sounds like this: “I hate it when you…” “You messed up.” “There’s going to be consequences.” However, even when feedback is negative, it gives the one receiving the feedback a chance to learn and grow if they choose.
People can only guess if their actions are working and more time and energy is spent trying to decipher the silence than working on creating results. “Is what I’m going working?” “Is what I’m doing wrong?” “Why won’t he/she speak to me?” It’s a guess and check method spent mostly on guessing.
Several years ago I worked in an organization where all feedback stopped. The “boss” literally quit speaking to me. In public, I was invisible. Even in a bathroom where there were only two of us, I did not exist. Awkward! I guess I eventually figured out the message. I was not needed, and it was better to go elsewhere. The crazy thing is, if the “boss” had just given me specific feedback, we both probably would have gotten what we wanted much more quickly without a lot of hassle.
It is imperative supervisors give feedback. Too often I see leaders who are afraid to have difficult conversations. They suffer in silence until their aggravation results in an attitude of “done”. At that point, growth and recovery are no longer an option. What if the leader would have just said what needed to be said in a professional way? What if the leader coached their employee? What potential greatness was lost because the leader remained silent? What relationship was lost because things were allowed to become contentious?
Don’t get me wrong. The responsibility of feedback does not lie solely on the shoulders of leaders. All members of an organization have a responsibility of providing feedback. I tell my staff all the time that I don’t want them just to say yes and agree to everything I say. I need their thoughts, their consideration of unintended consequences and problem-solving, their ability to piggyback and make the idea even better. I need to know if something I have done has made their job harder. Their feedback cannot always result in “their way” because as a leader I always have to consider the big picture for the organization. However, without their feedback, how do I grow? How do I become better for them?
With all of this said, the most growth is going to occur when feedback is professional. While angry feedback is still probably better than silence, it is still destructive. It takes a great deal of energy for those involved in angry feedback to get beyond the emotion and focus on growth again. It is possible, but again, often angry feedback is just the explosion that occurs after a prolonged silence where the feedback was bottled up too long.
If you are a part of a learning organization, here are some tips to defeat the deadly sound of silence:
Give feedback, in good times and bad. People you work with need to know. It’s way more efficient than guessing. Each individual’s background experiences may muddy the water of interpreting “silence”
Feedback should be a two-way street. Both the leader and members of the organization should give feedback so that everyone has a chance to grow.
While feedback is better than silence, sometimes you may need a moment to compose yourself. Don’t give feedback in the heat of the moment, but don’t wait too long either. Feedback should be timely and professional.
Be specific. Say what you mean and mean what you say. The more specific you are with your feedback, the more likely you are to get what you need.
Don’t ever allow yourself to become so comfortable that feedback stops. At that point, so does growth. Today’s good is tomorrow’s mediocre.
If you are the leader, create venues for your organization to provide you with feedback. Surveys, exit tickets after professional learning or staff meetings, and Google docs are all great ways to collect feedback. While I’m not a huge fan of anonymous feedback (it can be as bad as silence in the fact it doesn’t provide an avenue for clarification), I recognize that sometimes you have to start their of those you lead don’t feel safe giving feedback. It is a starting place, but the leader should work diligently to build relationships and get people comfortable with feedback that is specific and individualized.
Yes, sometimes it is easier to be silent. Silence can punish those with whom we are upset. It can send the message “I don’t even care enough about you to acknowledge your existence”. However, it rarely results in growth for anyone. Feedback with a growth mindset takes both grit and grace. It takes the grit to put others’ need to grow before one’s personal comfort of staying silent. Even more, it takes grace to give feedback in a manner that others are willing to listen and hear the intended message so that growth can occur.
I was never good at accepting “because I said so,” as an explanation. As a child, when this was the reasoning for why I should do something, it typically resulted in arguments or lack of compliance on my part. I always wanted to know why something was expected and how it was best for me in the long run. After five years as a teacher, I even got a minor in Special Education with my diagnostician certification because I couldn’t just accept someone telling me why some students qualified for services and others didn’t. I needed to know why. As a result of my loathing for this particular combination of four words, I have made it a point to never say them as a parent or an educator.
When I began teaching, I was content to give my students a mathematical formula for volume so they could plug in numbers to find the answer. It was all I knew to do. However, after attending a training based on the work of Marilyn Burns, I found that my students were so much more successful using inquiry-based learning where they were given boxes of all different sizes to fill with cubes. Not only did they discover the formula for volume, they owned it. Now they were not determining the volume of containers because I said so, they were doing it because they completely understood what, why, and how.
Ironically, while our teaching has evolved to understand that a discovery approach develops our students thinking and problem solving abilities, we have often kept our leadership practices in the realm of “because I said so.Here is your lesson plan template “because I said so”. You need to use small group instruction, “because I said so”. Include technology, use this strategy, and don’t forget to post your objectives “because I said so.”
Recently, I realized how passionately I feel about the ineffectiveness of these words as a leadership justification. This year, as we were really delving into our teaching habits and routines, it became time to discuss a “best practice” that teachers had already implemented…posting learning objectives. Yes, I know this is best practice, but I never required this of my teachers . Many did it because someone had previously told them to do so. Some knew it was a check on our walk through documents, so they did so. Others attended training for English Language Learners and where told there to do so. The problem I had with this is that while posting learning objectives is a “best practice” and there is research to support the benefit of doing it, when teachers post objectives out of compliance, is it really any different from giving students a formula so that they can plug in numbers without understanding why or how they get the answer?
I knew it was time to discuss the issue of learning objectives but I resolved that teachers in my building would not do this out of compliance to leadership. If they were going to post the learning objectives, I wanted it to benefit students, not out of efforts to please the principal. I wanted my teachers to own the purpose of posting objectives, just as my previous students had owned using mathematical formulas.
For the past two years we had been on a journey to explore strategies of raising the higher level thinking abilities of our students. We had done this by dissecting the state standards, writing questions aligned to the proper rigor level, and implementing mental models for our students to help them transfer knowledge and develop schema. This year I explained that we were going to begin to explore how to raise the level of thinking of our students through writing objectives that integrated process skills with content standards to make sure that our learning in the classroom was dually-coded.
Almost instantly I heard the collective groan. I knew it was because they already had a negative perspective of this practice as something they had done out of compliance and not truly the purpose intended. We practiced with “manipulatives” that I had created so that they could easily lay out process skills to see which ones were the best fit for the content. As I walked around, some teams were getting the process more easily, while others struggled. I even had one of my more independently thinking teachers become quite uptight at even the mention of suggesting that they do something “mandated”. As we closed the activity, I assured teachers that I wasn’t requiring anything, but that we would continue to explore this practice and how it could benefit our students during the time allotted for our professional learning communities.
We have just finished our first round of PLC meetings and continued our conversations of posting learning objectives. As teachers expressed their anxiety, I have continued to tell them that this is not a required practice. I had one brave teacher share out that she had posted for years. However, she acknowledged that she had never referred to them in her lesson. I asked how much time she spent each day creating the objectives and writing them on the board, to which she replied a couple of minutes. Interestingly enough, if someone spends 2 minutes a day creating and posting objectives, that is just over six hours a year spent on a task that didn’t give any educational value. Six hours of time that could have been spent on something more valuable if we weren’t going to mention them during the lesson anyway.
I think that this is where we miss the boat in education. Someone somewhere attempts to get higher achievement for their students and discovers a strategy that works. That person explains the strategy to others and some research to prove its benefit. Good, right? Yes, right up until the point that we begin giving teachers the formula without letting them discover it for themselves. All to often, we mandate best practice and teachers do it out of compliance and not truly understanding the value. Teachers are typically a very compliant group of people. We want to please and we want to do it right, especially if student success is at stake so we go through the motions and hope it the next silver bullet will work.
I think it’s time to take a different approach. I’ve been in education long enough to see the pendulum swings of pedagogy. From what I have observed, often it is more about a teacher’s ability to “sell” the learning than it is about any particular strategy. Be it phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy, if the teacher believes in it and can effectively use it, students learn. Certainly, we need to use research-based best practice. However, if we are going to mandate its use by everyone in school, in a district, or in a state, we need to take the time to set up the learning opportunity for teachers to discover its value and relevance so that they have a deep enough understanding of what, why and how that they can effectively implement what we are asking them to do. Remember, my students didn’t invent the formula for volume, but they discovered it for themselves and they had more buy in for its use.
As we end September, we are continuing to learn, explore, and discuss this strategy of posting learning objectives. I bring in a variety of formats and resources for them to investigate. We practice writing objectives together. Slowly, I see teachers adopting a practice that is best for them. They know what they need to do, how to do, and most importantly why. Because of that, they post objectives for their students, not for me. It makes me think about a time when my oldest son was very little. He once responded to someone who told him not to ask so many questions with “I only ask why because I need to know.” I think too often we have squashed questions out of our learners to the point they just do it and no longer ask. If we truly want to develop thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create and encourage “why?” Our students deserve more than teaching practices based upon “because I said so”.
Below is a great resource from Simon Senek on why it is important to explain the importance of “why” (and it’s not because I said so!)