Monday, February 1, 2016

The Power of Teamwork

“A school community is like a ship. Everyone must be prepared to take the helm.” (Roland Barth)

Too few people realize that a group can accomplish what an individual alone cannot. Sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not prevalent in many schools. Despite all the challenges educators face, often we isolate ourselves. As a young teacher, I truly believed that I would make a positive difference in every student’s life--that I would be THE difference-maker, but I erroneously, and perhaps arrogantly, thought I could do it alone.

Despite my best efforts--I was always one of the first to arrive and the last to leave--by working in isolation, I limited my ability to advance as a teacher and thus hurt my students. I was too proud to ask for help (side note: I remember struggling with my junior/senior psychology class, which was made up of 24 female students and 1 male all of whom were just a couple of years younger than me, and seeking the advice of my administrators only to be rebuffed with flippant comments...that didn’t help change my perspective).

We cannot close our classroom doors and just go about our business, either fighting the battle by ourselves or scared to admit that we need help.

In my 7th year, my school began a freshman transition program. At the heart of the program was the collaborative planning time, an unfortunate rarity in American education. Teaching the most challenging students in the school, I soon realized that I could accomplish more and be far more effective if I was willing to share ideas, ask for help and offer support. Teamwork.

Almost by luck, we each brought our own diverse styles to the team.
  • The pleaser: This teacher was all about his students’ emotional well-being. He didn’t see himself as a subject-matter teacher and would sacrifice instructional time to talk to students. He focused most of his energy on getting to know his students and their lives outside of the classroom. Of course, knowing this, his students often purposefully side-tracked him so teaching and learning became secondary, but his students also confided in him.
  • The professional: This teacher enjoyed teaching and saw each lesson plan as a personal challenge. He was a practitioner who applied data and research-proven strategies to teaching. While recognizing the need to build relationships with students, instruction sat in the front seat.
  • The pragmatist: This teacher was new to the profession and entered the teaching profession to make a difference but also to have time with her young children. She was the person who would just sit in our meetings, not say much, and just soak up the information.She was even-keeled, consistent and rational.
  • The regular: This teacher was straight-down the middle. He was old-school, loved his subject and had seen it all. While he loved his job, he rarely showed emotion (positive or negative) as he’d seen it all.

While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, together we made an exceptional team (by the way I was the “professional”). While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, like most teachers, we shared an overarching desire to ensure the success of our students. The experience of collaborating with these teachers, strengthened me as a teacher. I focused more energy on building relationships with every student. I became a better listener and asked questions that I didn’t have the answer to. I learned that when we isolate ourselves, we limit our success.

Over the next ten years, many teachers cycled through the freshman transition program. The success of our teaching--and ultimately, our students--hinged on our ability to lean on each other and share ideas.  Through teamwork and collaboration, we build meaningful connections, reducing our stress and improving student outcomes. Only once we establish an expectation of teamwork and connectedness, will each staff member view themselves as something larger and greater.

“Coming together is a beginning. 
Keeping together is progress. 
Working together is success.” 
~Henry Ford

I’d be remiss, if I didn’t give a shout-out to some of the high functioning, highly successful teams I’ve been part of including administration teams to our RTI team to the School Improvement team, and many of the teams I coached.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reflections from EdLeader21

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the EdLeader21 Conference in Dallas, Texas. Whenever, an educator attends a conference--at least one that's halfway decent--it's tempting to go back to school the next day and try to implement anything and everything. Of course, this leads to failure. Fortunately, Ken Kay and the EdLeaders seem to understand that as they challenged us to grab low-hanging fruits and to plant seeds.

As a new assistant principal, I've already made some small tweaks, but I'm still seeking to understand my new school, so I surely won't be very aggressive when I return to school on Monday.

Low-hanging fruit
I oversee our school's SBIT (School-based Intervention Team, part of our RTI process) and want to ensure we do a better job of understanding the needs of students referred to this team. So, I've developed a quick survey that students can complete online or on paper to better understand their needs. This will help us personalize learning experiences and increase student learning.

Harder to reach fruit
Our PLC's are at different places for a variety of reasons, so these goals will be differentiated. 
  • Use PLC's to answer, To what extent does our teaching emphasize the 4 C's (Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking)? What percentage of our assessments require the 4 C's? 
  • Challenge PLC's to ensure we make the shift from acquisition of knowledge to a deeper understanding and application of skills and knowledge?
At the EdLeader21 Conference Tony Wagner stated, "Isolation is the killer of innovation." From the teacher side, we must provide time and resources for our PLCs to innovate. Additionally, our teachers are doing some great things within their classrooms, but too often they're doing things in isolation. I'd love to see our teachers publicize these great things and open their classrooms to their peers. In addition, I hope teachers will open their classrooms to their peers, so that we can continue to learn from each other. 

Examine how we can turn professional learning opportunities into a collaborative and creative process by providing teachers with choices but ensuring it is student-driven and research-based. I'm exploring use of badges and a monthly challenge. 

Planting seeds
Explore ways to develop project-based learning to ensure our students receive a coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum that engages them in the 4 C's. 

Give students more control over their learning so students are engaged in their learning rather than merely complying with school, district and state requirements?

Challenge PLCs to develop means of increasing student choice and examine how we assess our students with a move towards project-based learning, portfolios, and culminating assessments. 
Explore ways that we can expand our internship and individual research programs 

I challenge myself to constantly evaluate How students experience learning at Monticello High School? Is the teaching and learning aligned with our standards and the 4 C's? 


Of course, none of this will be possible without the dedication and hard work of our committed and forward-thinking faculty and staff. I'm fortunate to be surrounded by educators who understand we can't continue to use test scores as the major means of assessment, whether they be state end of course tests or classroom tests, and we will not be able to refocus ourselves unless we focus on the 4 C's because they are what really matter.

While state standards and their corresponding tests represent hurdles, as educators if we follow the 4 C's (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking) we will Embrace Students, Inspire Learning and Innovate Opportunities. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

At the Heart of Every Great Administrator...

How Can We Build Relationships

For me August 19 marks not just the beginning of a new school year but an entirely new adventure as I begin my journey as an assistant principal at a new school in a new district. While I have specific goals, like improving general education-special education teacher collaboration, my ultimate goal is to build relationships with students, teachers, staff and the community. I strive to be visible, make myself accessible to everyone and, most importantly to listen and learn from everyone. 

Building Relationships with Students
As an administrator, one of my favorite times of the day has always been lunch because it affords me the opportunity to interact and converse with students, but building relationships extends way beyond the 30 minute lunch period. It begins by greeting students as they enter the building, whether it's as they get off the buses or saying hello in the hallways and it doesn't end until my head hits the pillow. Student relationships are at the heart of everything we do. 

Of course, all administrators aim to spend time in classrooms to provide critical feedback for teachers, but it also presents a great opportunity to build relationships with students. Instead of  simply observing the teacher and learning, I use this time to interact with students by asking pointed questions, participating in class, and taking pictures. Classroom observations are also a great leaping point for future conversations."What did you do after I left?" "How'd the rest of the class go?" "Tell me what happened after I left." 

I view any and every interaction, whether it's a disciplinary referral, running into them at the grocery story or even a brief interaction on Twitter, as an opportunity to forge relationships. But I also believe it's important to be create deliberate occasions to interact with students. There are many ways to do this, whether it is through positive referrals, attending extra-curricular activities or applauding a student's effort or accomplishment with a hand-written note, a phone call or just a pat on the back. Through it all, I strive to create relationships and an environment that's positive and supportive, where above all else, students know I care about them. 

Teachers Deserve Feedback and So Much More 
As an administrator, I understand that I can convey my values explicitly through observations and, more importantly, with the conversations that follow. I want teachers to see that I care about what they do; that I see the big picture and it's not just about grades, test scores and other data points. Of course at times I'll provide constructive criticism. At other times, it'll be necessary to provide training or support. But most of the time, it means applauding their great effort and simply getting out of their way. For the past couple of years, I've tried to hand-write five notes per week to recognize excellence and effort and I'll be sure to do so again this year. Ultimately, I want teachers to know I believe in them; that I have confidence in them and it's my job to ensure that they can do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. 

Can't Forget about Families and the Community 
With all that we do for our students and staff, it's often easy to forget about or put off building relationships with families and the community. My new school, Monticello High School, places a great importance on fostering these relationships with various community events and we've had several conversations about home visits and expanding our efforts. I'm fortunate to live minutes from school, so I'll have countless opportunities for informal interactions with community members and families, but again, I know I must do more. I'll continue with my Friday Five, in which I randomly call five families on Fridays to seek their input and feedback, and I'll continually seek ways to engage families.
As an administrator, I'm blessed to have the opportunity every single day to build relationships with students, staff and families. When I began my administrative career five years ago, I feared that I wouldn't be able to have the same kind of relationship with students as I did as a teacher. While in many ways the relationships are different, the opportunity to watch students grow from freshmen to seniors is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of my job. By reaching out and embracing students, staff and families, I hope the message is clear: "We're all in this together. Our commitment to our children/students is evident in everything that we do." 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Digital Tools for Digital Leaders

Digital learning Day is March 13, so I wanted to use this opportunity to share several digital tools that I use a school leader and a one that I hope to make more use of. School leaders must be willing to integrate digital tools to meet the needs of today's teachers and students.

Six years ago I created a Twitter account for my classroom. I tweeted the homework assignments, a summary of class and occasionally posted an question for students. This was one of the few times that I was ahead of the students in regards to technology and digital tools as the account never gained more than ten followers.

Since then, and corresponding to my switch from teacher to administrator, Twitter has exploded. Twitter allows me to connect to other educators, who like me are reflective and are constantly seeking improvement. I routinely participate in several Twitter chats and host #vachat (Mondays at 8ET). Twitter has been a game-changer!

When asked about my favorite tech tools, I tend to overlook Google Drive; perhaps because it's so ubiquitous, I don't even realize how often I use it. Google Docs allow me to share and, more importantly, collaborate with colleagues. Google Forms allows me to collect classroom observation data, conduct surveys and recently I've created forms to monitor to behavior and academic progress for select students.

Remind allows me to send blast text messages to our students and parents. We have six remind accounts (1 for each of our classes, 1 for faculty and 1 for our student mentors). We use Remind to send out information about schedule changes--recently our Remind account has gotten a lot of work because of all the snow days and delay. We'll also use it to remind students and families of important dates, deadlines and events. With the Remind app, it's a quick, easy--and free--way to send out information.

Zite and Flipboard (Zite was recently bought by Flipboard) both learn your interests and tailor articles from across the web to my unique interests.

Although I've had a Voxer account for more than a year, I'm just know beginning to actually make use of it. Like Twitter, Voxer is another digital tool that allows for communication and collaboration. Voxer allows me to "chat" with others through text or voice messages either one-to-one or as a member of a group chat. I have joined a couple of groups and in the future I look to start a couple of groups of my own. What separates Voxer from Twitter is the ability to hear a person's voice, which makes it more personal, and you're not limited to 140 characters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tough Love

As a freshman in high school, I was shy, timid and extremely introverted. Fortunately, I had several teachers who believed in me and helped me mature and break out of my shell (I blogged about them here), but it was my health teacher who made a lasting impact on my life. 

As a freshman, I was grade-centric--unfortunately I became less focused on academic progress as a sophomore, but that's for another blog. My GPA stood right around 4.0, my teachers loved me, and my classmates looked at me as a top student (i.e. they viewed me as a nerd). But, I was still inordinately shy. 

My health teacher, Coach Smith, saw both my strengths and weaknesses as a student, and more importantly, as a whole person. One day, after countless attempts to engage me in class discussions, Mr. Smith had seen enough of my quietness. Perhaps my incessant "I don't know" answers to questions that had no wrong answers or ones where I clearly knew the answer, caused him to snap, "Reed, see me after class." 

As a bespectacled ninth grader, I barely tipped the scales at 90lbs; Coach Smith, on the other hand, was the prototypical coach, built like barrel with a no nonsense demeanor.  For the rest of the class, I sweated bullets. Never before had a teacher demanded that I stick around after class. Right before class dismissed, Mr. Smith pointed to me and motioned for me to come into the hallway. I don't ever recall being so nervous. 
In his typical direct manner he pointed his finger at me, "You're too smart to act so stupid. When I call on you, I expect you to answer and not with 'I don't know.' Class participation is a big part of your grade in this class and if you don't get it together, you're going to fail. Do I make myself clear?" 
I stammered out a timid, "Yes, sir." 

While I didn't change overnight, Coach Smith's tough love approach forced me to participate. In time I actually became comfortable participating in class. Over the next three years, my relationship with Coach Smith grew stronger. By my senior year, I recognized that his hallway "talk" with me was nothing more than a veiled threat--there was no way he was going to fail me--but at the time I was clueless to that. Coach took advantage of my gullibility and recognized the best way to change me was to scare me. His tough love talk took only thirty seconds, but it made a lifetime of a difference.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Do We Need Parent-Teacher Conferences? A Better Alternative

We just wrapped up our most recent round of parent-teacher conferences. Attendance was dismal.

The poor attendance caused me to reflect, “Why was attendance so low?”
  • With student grades being updated regularly online, parents know how their children are doing.
  • Our teachers and counselors regularly communicate with families, sharing positive news, student progress, and student challenges. They’ve reached out to parents of struggling students, so phone calls and conferences with many parents have already been held prior to Parent-Teacher Conference night.
  • By high school, many parents have heard the same thing for years about their child.
The idea behind parent-teacher conferences—to support student success through engaging parents—is commendable, but if parents aren’t attending, we must look at other ways to create shared school-family responsibility to support student learning and development.

So what if, instead of parent-teacher conferences, we used the allotted and required parent-teacher conference days to plan for and conduct Student Showcases?

Many classrooms sat empty during our most recent parent-teacher conferences. Maybe it's time we look for alternatives

What’s a Student Showcase?
  • An annual event where families, community members and others are invited
  • An experiences that highlights student work, creativity, discovery, ingenuity, research, innovation, 21st-century skills, and more
  • A forum that engages students, families and community
  • A means of communicating all the wonderful work our students/children and teachers do
  • Opportunities for students to present their work, interact with the public and gain valuable experiences that extend beyond the classroom
  • A way for students to connect with members of the community, potentially leading to jobs or other opportunities
Possible Student Showcase Ideas:
  • Culinary students perform cooking demonstrations.
  • Choir, orchestra and band classes give small, intimate concerts.
  • Senior capstone students share their projects with community members.
  • Students in floral design hold workshops for families, allowing families to learn the tricks-of-the-trade. 
  • English, foreign language, and social studies classes present projects, make speeches, conduct Socratic Seminars, recite poetry, etc. with families in attendance.
  • Students in Career-Technical Education classes present and demonstrate their projects.
  • Art students display their works.
  • Science students conduct and explain labs or projects to community members.
  • Students in health and PE teach some of the unique games they play to their families or present some of their health projects to families.
  • Students in film analysis showcase their films.
  • Computer programming students share their programs and games. 
I know a school-wide event like this requires immense planning and time, things that educators don't exactly have a lot of, so it would require some tweaking to our school calendar and some other minor changes. But, I also view the Student Showcase as an opportunity to celebrate student growth and excellence, things that we can never do enough of.

As a parent, I know I’d be excited and eager to attend an event like this.

Maybe it’s time we scrap, the traditional parent-teacher conferences for something different, something better. Let me know your thoughts below.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

10 Ways Being a Connected Educator Transformed Me

Like many educators, becoming a connected educator transformed my professional life. Prior to becoming a connected educator my professional network was quite limited. Limited, in fact, to a handful of teachers with whom I ate lunch or talked to as we ran off copies. Becoming a connected educator exposed me to a network of peers and experts who are committed to improving teaching and learning, each willing to share their favorite strategies, resources, and more.

My Top 10
  1. #Edfocus One of the first twitter chats I was exposed to @MrBernia, @mccoyderek,  @BurkheadBill and others showed me the power of Twitter. My journey into becoming a Connected Educator had begun. 
  2. Reading blogs Out of fear of not including several blogs that I routinely read, I'll quote Will Richardson, "The ability to share and connect with many, many others of like minds and interests" has transformed my learning and my own professional experiences. Of course, Will's quote applies to all "things connected" from Twitter to webinars to Voxer, but the depth associated with blogs has clearly transformed me. 
  3. My own blogs This blog, my far too sporadic entries on Brilliant or Insane, and my Cougar Communication blog all require reflection and greater understanding. Through my own blogging, I've been connected to more educators, leading to increased communication and collaboration and ultimately I've become better because of it.
  4. #ptchat I'm proud to say that I've been a regular participant in #ptchat from the beginning. @Joe_Mazza is an inspirational lead learner and someone I've learned so much from. Conversations on #ptchat have ranged from Bully Prevention to Using Technology to Engage Parents to Back to School Nights.
  5. #satchat No other chat has taken off quite like #satchat. Moderators @bradmcurrie @ScottRRocco have created a platform for superintendents, central office personnel, school-based administrators, teachers and anyone else interested in improving education. I've heard Brad describe #satchat as a one-stop place for administrators to share and learn from each other. I wholeheartedly agree!
  6. #iaedchat and #edchatri The inspiration behind #vachat (see #7)
  7. #vachat Along with @philgriffins, I co-host #vachat every Monday at 8ET (Shameless plug). But seriously, inspired by the likes of all the previously mentioned twitter chats, we--along with @Dr_TravisBurns--saw the need for a twitter chat for Virginia educators. Of course, like all the aforementioned chats, our chat has become much more global. Serving as a moderator surely isn't easy (coming up with a topic and questions is much more daunting than I ever would've imagined). The topics I choose are often ones that I'm struggling with, so I'm able to take what I learn and immediately apply it.
  8. #sblchat Like #ptchat, standards-based learning chat meets every Wednesday at 9ET and I'm proud to say I've been part of it since its launching. No other chat includes so many experts (@RickWormeli2, @kenoc7, @myrondueck, and others are regular participants). Personally, before going into administration I had slowly been making the shift to standards-based grading, and I don't think anything transformed my teaching and instruction as much as my shift to SBG. I continue to learn from the #sblchat (I wish it had been around when I was still in the classroom!)
  9. Edcamps If I wasn't connected, I never would have experienced an edcamp, the best professional development conferences ever!
  10. Exposure to New Technologies As an educator, it's important that we not only teach our content, we must also teach and expose our students to technologies that they will use outside of school and that will enhance their learning. Of course, the only way to do so, is to be a connected educator. We can't simply sit on the sidelines; we must be innovative practitioners.
Being a connected educator has enabled me to take full advantage of the above opportunities. Being a connected has stimulated my development as an educator.