As I prepared for the 2017-18 school year, I had lots to consider: my learning the past year as a part of the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute, the feedback that I received from my students, staff, and parents through various data points, the past that had resulted in the path Degan was on, and the aspirations that we had for our students. The question that kept ringing in my head was “How in the world do I create a vision to help us move forward with all of this to consider?”
My campus had been fortunate to experience lots of success and recognition for the accomplishments we have made with transformation. At the same time, we have also experienced some pretty big hits to culture. It’s hard to put this much energy into getting our flywheel moving. I think we all thought after three years, it would be starting to have its own momentum. It’s not very comforting to hear that real change takes three to five years when you are in year four. How would we keep moving forward? What would be our rallying cry for this next push to transform learning in meaningful ways so that our students could be successful?
The answer was actually in the data. It was clear that as a campus we had made great strides in understanding what it was students were to learn and proven strategies to ensure that learning. We understood our changing demographics and could relate to them and build meaningful relationships. Yet, we were still short of the goal. What our data showed was that we needed to evolve in how we were having teachers use technology and that teachers wanting to design more engaging, innovative work, but they needed time and practice to make this happen.
Then it hit me. It was time to get our “game on”, literally, and level up learning for our students.
I love the mental image this theme created. It acknowledges that first, our work, like games should be fun! It should be challenging enough to keep our interest, while still being attainable. We should receive feedback that adds value and helps us shape our decision-making to improve our processes. We need to feel a part of a network in achieving the goal.
I am so excited about this year. Today, we had our first professional learning and we made connections to the work of Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. While not everything in learning has to be digital, it recognizes that games release some of the control to the gamer and allow them to test out theories to achieve the goals. My teachers had the chance to explore how to incorporate some of these concepts into their learning design today. Today teachers created and shared some cool new ideas. I can’t wait to see the impact in the classrooms with students!
For my afternoon learning, I got to reconnect with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute. Listening to Alan November just reinforced my belief that my campus is on the right path. When we only focus on testing, we don’t have fun.
Our current generation of students has never lived without technology in their lives. They spend 2-3 hours a day “gaming”. According to McGonigal, over the course of their school years from fifth grade to graduation, they will likely spend as much time on games as they do in school. We have to prepare these new learners for a new future. That may mean that as adults, we have to “learn” how they learn and incorporate it into the knowledge we want them to gain. It’s time to level up and do things differently than we have always done. GAME ON!
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.
I love metaphors. I think they are excellent tools in learning to promote higher level thinking and help learning stick. Metaphors provide something for us to relate to that we already know and understand so that we can connect our new learning in an innovative way. My most recent leadership metaphor came to me when I was participating in a session with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute and they asked us to juggle scarves. First, we had to juggle by ourselves and without any interaction or feedback from anyone else. Very few in the room were able to juggle the scarves successfully.
After we had attempted to teach ourselves, we had the opportunity to work with others and provide feedback and encouragement. Collaboration increased the rate of success tremendously. What resonated with me as I walked away (besides the fact of how cool it was that I learned to juggle scarves and taught someone else as well) was the power of clear, constructive feedback.
Not long after that, one of my campus leadership teams hit a real roadblock. We have faced some real challenges this year. People were exhausted. With Halloween, the Super Moon, and an election season with lots of negativity, not to mention some unexpected situations with students, we had stretched our productive coping mechanisms thin and resulted in a heated meeting. I know everyone left feeling frustrated. As I reflected, I think I was most discouraged that the snowballing anxiety had resulted in angry outbursts that still weren’t necessarily clear about the real issues or root causes. They were mostly just an expression of exasperation. I was upset with myself that my team had reached this point and I had missed the signs. How could I have let my team down? I definitely felt like my leadership juggling was resulting in everything hitting the ground.
The whole experience got me back to thinking about juggling scarves. Leadership in education is much about juggling scarves. This is because juggling scarves isn’t like juggling balls. The motion is entirely different. Instead of a circular motion, it is more of a crisscross. Rather than an immediate gravitational force, there are a few seconds of floating. It requires focus, rhythm, and gentle touch to get the scarves flowing. I think this is how educational leadership works as well. You are constantly crisscrossing to monitor, check, and keep everything moving. You have to use a gentle touch, because if you grab, cling, and forget to let go, you can’t catch the next scarf. You also have to keep everything at eye level to monitor the progress and make adjustments. Educational leadership has to be intentional, but with a light touch and keen perception.
A few weeks later, I repeated the experience I had learned with my leadership team. I added some of my own twists. Not only did they experience learning to juggle in isolation, my twist had to do with the type of feedback when it came to that time. The jugglers were paired with someone who could only give nonverbal feedback. They could use their faces, body language and gestures, but no words. Some smiled and clapped. Some looked disinterested. Others looked angry, and some even grabbed the scarves away to demonstrate in frustration how to do it.
Feedback is just as critical. When the team gives clear feedback about your strategies, you can use your mental energy to make adjustments and improve the flow. When you take your eyes of the scarves and try to read someone’s face and decipher nonverbal feedback, your focus has moved off the scarves, and they are more likely to fall to the ground. As leadership teams, we have to give clear, constructive feedback on the process, so we do not get distracted from the goal and all the scarves stay up in the air. However, if the scarves fall, you don’t give up. You pick the scarves up and start again. Practice improves the process and the chances for success. Add in a team providing clear, constructive feedback and encouragement, and the probability of achieving the desired outcomes are even more likely.
This is how leadership works. Scarves hit the ground. Practice improves the process and the chances for success. Add in a team providing clear, constructive feedback and encouragement, and the probability of achieving the desired outcomes are even more likely.
I can say I am fortunate to have great educators around me. They are willing to take risks, make mistakes, and learn together to do what is best for our students. As a result, I do believe that for now, all the scarves are up in the air and moving again!
There is lots of propaganda these days about vouchers and school choice. A favorite line to stir the masses on the topic is to say how children shouldn’t have to attend failing schools.
I think we have to consider what a failing school in NOT:
A Title I school-“Title I” is just a designation that states a certain portion of the school’s population is economically disadvantaged. Because of this, the school receives additional funds to train teachers and provide additional resources so that students who may have entered school behind because of lack of opportunity. If a Title I school is considered “school-wide” than even those children who are not economically disadvantaged benefit. It is actually a huge benefit to attending a Title I school because these teachers are highly skilled in making a difference with all students, not just the students who learn easily. I took my own child to a Title I school rather than his affluent neighborhood school because I knew they would grow him, wherever he started from. Being economically disadvantaged is not contagious. You can’t catch it by attending a Title I school. Children in Title I schools learn the value of diversity and are more likely to learn to know how to function with others who are different than themselves in the real world.
A school whose state test scores are below ninety percent –Just because a school appears to have high passing rates doesn’t mean they are a great school. It may simply mean that the students walked into the school with a good amount of skills learned from home. Right now on the Texas accountability test, passing rates are fairly low. The test has changed to reflect higher-level thinking, and they are gradually building the passing rate as schools make the shift from “strategies” to “thinking.”
The score in and of itself doesn’t show you for sure if a student is performing higher than they were when they arrived. Sometimes when a student enters school with large gaps, the score may not yet be passing, but it is showing astounding growth. An overall passing rate doesn’t tell you if a school can make a difference with all students.
A school with diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions, and backgrounds- Our world is changing and becoming more and more diverse. Groups that were once majority are finding that is no longer the case. To prepare children for the 21st-century world, they need to develop the skills to value and collaborate with others from all backgrounds, including those that are significantly different from their own. Students who attend “homogenous” schools are more likely to struggle in college and beyond because the haven’t developed the skill set to work with others besides those who are most like themselves.
Here is what I think a failing school IS:
A school that doesn’t put children first – Schools should filter every decision they make through what is best for their students. If it isn’t making a difference for children in a school, it shouldn’t matter.
A school that doesn’t value partnerships with their families –Schools should always be working to invite their parents in, ask their opinions and build relationships so that they can partner in the child’s education.
Does your school provide opportunities to be involved other than fundraisers? Does it have a parent involvement policy? If not, it should.
A school that doesn’t grow EVERY student – It’s easy to appear to be a good school if all the students are the same and performing on high levels. However, if a child walks in the door with lots of skills, a school should be able to grow the student from that point, not rest on their laurels A failing school is one that takes advantage of the fact that students may already be able to perform skills and doesn’t attempt to grow them more. They may also not be able to grow students that have more difficulty learning. They resort to labels and excuses of why it is the child that is the problem, rather than accepting the challenge and ensuring learning happens.
A school that doesn’t seek to teach problem-solving, higher level thinking, and 21st-century skills necessary to survive in a future that we cannot yet fully define – Our world has changed drastically, just since I was in school. There are jobs and technology we couldn’t have even dreamed of at the time I was in elementary school. We have to intentionally think about this world that doesn’t exist. We have to make sure that our students are proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians, but we also have to make sure they are thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, and have skills to persist when things get challenging, while also being willing to grow. Students can no longer live in a world of “perfection” because learning is messy and they don’t need to waste time memorizing things that they can access easily through technology.
A school using technology in learning only to consume information –To often schools have lots of technology available, but they are only using it to access programs that allow for practice of skills or looking up information. Truly great schools are teaching students the programs that not only allow access to information but applications that allow them to create and demonstrate their understanding of concepts. Research is showing that this type of creativity is critical for the future.
A school driven by high stakes testing and preparation –Too many schools these days are trying to prove their worth through high scores on high stakes tests. The problem is that these schools are abandoning real learning for test preparation and drills of skills rather than relevant learning grounded in real-life application. Before you assume a good score means a good school, you may need to look deeper to find out exactly how those scores are being achieved and what may be sacrificed for the performance on a single day.
A school that doesn’t function as a learning organization – A successful school is one where everyone grows and learns: leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community. Administration and teachers should constantly be learning and evolving to meet the needs of the students and an ever-changing future. They ways students are learning shouldn’t look like the ways we taught them 20, 10, or even five years ago. There should be opportunities for parents and the community to participate in the learning as well. If the only learning is that of the students, there is definitely a problem.
Yes, no child should have to attend a failing school. We just need to be careful to make sure we really know what a “failing school” really is.
Being the principal of a Title I school with fifty-two percent of our students coming from impoverished backgrounds has been a challenge, to say the least. Three years ago, we began our journey making sure all teachers clearly understood the learning standards. We expanded the second year to include some quality training in small group instruction, higher level thinking strategies, and writing. This third year we have really worked on understanding our students, especially those who come from backgrounds that may be very different from our own. It has become clear that relationships are key, and to develop relationships and give feedback in ways that are meaningful, you must truly understand the one that you are giving the feedback.
As we have entered the second semester of our third year, I have been amazed at the progress I have seen in such a short time. Teachers and staff are teaching our students skills at deep levels. Not only are they able to apply it in the context of the classroom, but the students are also starting to be able to transfer their learning into abstract testing situations. It was looking at our last round of data that got me pondering.
Yes, all the things we have intentionally worked on as a school are important. But I have to admit that there was something present that allowed these initiatives to be successful. At their core, the staff members in my building exemplify the characteristics of strong learners.
Curiosity and Desire to Learn- Teachers who are learners continually assess their current situation and the factors that impact it. They ask questions like “why?” and “what if?” to help them make sense of their world. They are not satisfied with someone else’s definitions for understanding, but must experience them for themselves. Their classrooms are an experiment of trial and error to find what works.
Grit in the Face of a Challenge- Teachers who are learners recognize that failure is a part of learning. Even when you have a path of steady growth, there is eventually a plateau or even a dip in progress. Teachers who are masters of learners accept this as a part of the growth process. When faced with a challenge to their progress, these teachers persist, taking risks to find new ways to overcome the challenge rather than accept defeat.
Growth Mindset to Continue to Improve- Often, once we as educators learn a strategy that works, we cling to it, even when it is no longer effective. Teachers who are learners recognize that the goal is to perfect the craft of creating learners, not a strategy. Teacher Learners are continually reflecting on their practice and learning so that they keep up with the needs of their students. They know that the need to learn is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength in that they recognize the power of continually evolving.
I think no matter the circumstances: whether students come from affluent, middle-class, or poverty backgrounds, to grow children into learners, you have to possess those characteristics. When you have these traits of a learner yourself, and you understand your students you can instill these same qualities in them. How can you help another person achieve this level of learning if you haven’t experienced it yourself? It really does “take one to grow one”!
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to receive the “Principal as Leader of Professional Learning” grant from The Learning Forward Foundation. It has been an amazing journey to explore an intentional professional learning plan, not only for myself but also for everyone on my campus.
Part of the reason this opportunity was such an honor is because it was Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) that taught me that quality professional learning is more than “a fun workshop” with “good presenters” and “cute ideas”. Learning Forward is the organization that instilled in me that quality professional learning should result in new tools that I could add to my toolbox of teaching and learning that results in increased student achievement.
My learning these past two years has been an action research in the concepts of grit, growth mindset, and the impact on student achievement when these concepts are intentionally taught to students, specifically students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this learning expanded my resources to meet the diverse needs of my students.
Here are some of my key “aha”s from this experience:
Don’t bring a hammer when you need a wrench. There are lots of opinions about grit and growth mindset. As with any strategy, there is no magic bullet. It is about having the right tool in your toolbox and using it in the right situation to impact learning. With grit and growth mindset, you have to make sure the student sees the relevance to their life. It is not about just creating struggle but helping a student see they have the mental capacity to overcome the struggle when faced with challenges.
Renovate one room at a time. If you want an educational initiative to work, you have to be intentional and focused. It will be tempting to try to fix everything all at one time, especially if you have lots of needs and see some initial success. When you do home renovation and expect to live there while you do it, you typically move room to room until it’s all done. Finish the job you are working on before you move on to the next one so that you don’t have everything torn apart. You can’t live in a house with everything ripped up (at least not effectively or affordably). In schools, we don’t have the benefit of living somewhere else while we transform educational practice. If you focus on improving the most important things that will get the most results, you see the most growth and become motivated to work on the next most important thing when the first thing becomes a habit. Working on one thing at a time is brain-friendly and prevents feelings of being overwhelmed, burned out and emotionally bankrupt.
Train your apprentices. Think about an apprentice. They watch the knowledgeable tradesman. Then they work side by side before gradually taking over the jobs themselves while the mentor gives feedback. It’s a gradual release model. When you want something to become practice for teachers, you have to model it as the leader. How in the world will they be able to carry out your vision if you only talk about it? They need to see it from you and practice with you there, so they feel confident to do it themselves.
Clearly communicate your vision for the desired outcome. You shouldn’t be shocked at a failed implementation or a result that doesn’t match the “end” you had in mind. Everyone needs to know “what” change is needed, “why” it is needed, and “how” you plan to get there. When these three things are clear, the goal becomes much more achievable. I think this is true whether you are working with students or adults. It is human nature to be successful. Having an idea of the purpose and plan helps people get started in the right direction.
Involve your clients in the design. We no longer can afford to live in a world where we tell people step by step, exactly what to do. Everyone on the team brings expertise and creativity. I am a huge fan of George Couros and his philosophy of “the smartest person in the room is the room.”
Expertise doesn’t mean flawless. The minute you think you have to perform perfectly you have slipped into a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is the enemy of learning and learning is the purpose of education. Forget perfection. Learn from mistakes. Allow others to see how you learn and grow from them. When things go wrong, don’t try to cover it up, make excuses, or quit. That can be costly.
Study the situation before you jump in and “fix”. Knowing and understanding your learners and their context allows you to give them learning in ways that are meaningful to them. Results in learning take place more quickly and make it more likely to stick.
Take your time and do the job right. Providing that learning in meaningful ways takes time. Lots and lots of time. (But it often gets results faster than things we have always done.)I have seen this on my campus with student conferencing and goal setting. It’s tedious. I’ve heard some say it takes time away from “real teaching”. However, providing feedback and guidance on a student’s individual work is the most powerful teaching in existence. Think about why athletes have private coaches or musicians take private lessons. While it has taken an investment, it is probably the most successful strategy we have used to increase student results.
The expectation today is for administrators to be instructional leaders. When I look at the Texas Principal Evaluation and Support System (TPESS), instructional leadership tools are critical for success. However, to be an effective instructional leader, you must first be the lead learner.
We can’t just assume that we are the sole giver of knowledge to our teachers and students. Nor can we hand over the dissemination of critical knowledge to others outside our organization and trust that they understand all that needs to be done. As building leaders, we must facilitate the learning process and continuous improvement of the adults, so that teachers to do the same for our students, so they also have the tools they need to design their own successful, productive lives.
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!)